Argentina's terrific trio
The terrific trio can bring World Cup glory to Argentina
(Ricardo Alvarez 12, Lionel Messi 76)
In a mediocre encounter, one moment was enough. The moment was a reminder that the South American battle of supremacy is really a simple matter of mathematics.
Brazil have only one. Argentina have three.
Neymar is a nascent star on the rise.
Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria are an established trio with something to prove. With the ball at their feet and a chip on their shoulder, they promise to be an irresistible presence in Brazil.
There is an unwritten rule that goals in friendlies, particularly those played more than 24 hours earlier, are unimportant; unworthy of repeating in a column such as this one.
But Argentina's second in an otherwise routine and rudimentary 2-0 victory over a limited Slovenia was greater than the sum of its parts - and its parts are pretty damn great.
Alejandro Sabella's 3-5-2 was geared largely towards giving his second stringers a runaround before Brazil.
Aside from Ricardo Alvarez's fine first goal for his country, it was all rather piecemeal and pedestrian.
This line-up would not scare Argentina's World Cup rivals. It didn't scare Slovenia.
And then Messi, Aguero and di Maria were called up from the bench.
Within minutes of their introduction, di Maria tracked back, intercepted and hugged the touchline for 40 metres. Pretty passes and tidy triangles followed with Aguero and Messi.
Like a frustrated detective chasing a serial killer in a bad movie, the Slovenians knew who the perpetrators were, they anticipated what was coming next, but their response was equally predictable. They did nothing. They were powerless to stop such artistic precision.
The Argentine trio swopped positions and overlapped. Di Maria chipped with an effortless accuracy usually seen with a sand wedge on the final day of a golf Major. Messi left his shadow chasing his shadow and stabbed in his 38th goal for his country.
The exquisite goal offers a prologue of what's to come; a clear message to Argentina's Group F rivals and beyond. They are a problem without an obvious solution.
Give them an inch and they'll take home the World Cup.
Just as it was with Diego Maradona four years ago, Sabella's only option is to attack.
With three Ferraris at one end, there is no incentive to fool around with less reliable engines at the other.
His 3-5-2 first-half experiment allowed stand-in skipper Javier Mascherano to slot in as a third central defender and test the mettle of other midfielders.
But Mascherano said it best in an interview on the eve of the final friendly.
"For Argentina, I'm a central midfielder," he reiterated. "Always have been and always will be."
His role, alongside Fernando Gago, will be vital in the World Cup. Gago is not fully fit.
His water-carrying duties might be limited during the group stages. Mascherano has to pick up the slack at the back.
Even the limited Slovenians occasionally exploited the space between the lines.
Marcos Rojo was characteristically dependable on the left. The rested Pablo Zabaleta is a redoubtable presence on the right.
But central defence is the Achilles' heel for opponents to hack away at in the hope of hurting Argentina.
Martin Demichelis' recall to the squad after two years in the international wilderness exemplifies Sabella's concern and caution.
Maradona was once bitten in South Africa. Sabella will be twice shy in Brazil.
Combining his first-half experiment with his second-half introduction of his prized triumvirate, the coach's template is clear: Level the playing field.
Maradona's men were so lopsided in 2010 his defenders appeared to be played at the bottom of a slope. Mascherano and Gago must balance the see-saw and then release the favoured three.
Collectively, di Maria, Messi and Aguero - if the latter's fitness holds - cannot be caught in full flight.
Like a cartoonish Roadrunner, they leave opponents in a cloud of dust as they bask in the sunlight.
WAY TO GO
They are the route to glory; Argentina's only way to the World Cup. And they are ready.
Unlike four years ago, there are no histrionics, tantrums and tiaras; no preening prima donnas and madcap managers making wild boasts and accusations.
Sabella has instilled the necessary stability. If he protects the defence, the attacking trio will do the rest.
Argentina have three reasons why they can be cheerful about their World Cup chances.
We are obviously going to try our best to perform well in the group stages and have the players be in their best condition.
— Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella
Now the hour of truth has come, the friendlies are over and we’re going to Brazil full of desire. We’ve managed to be a united and very strong squad and we did that as Alejandro wanted. We’re more together than ever because of the dream we all have.
- Lionel Messi