RIO DE JANEIRO – Head coach Alejandro Sabella believed Argentina had to play a perfect game in order to beat a dominant Germany team in the World Cup final Sunday at Maracana Stadium.
The Argentines had to be gritty defensively, and they were, as midfield general Javier Mascherano willed his teammates to a scoreless 90 minutes. They had to expose the German defense, and they did, using a game plan that France employed in the quarterfinals – lofting balls over the top of the defense – and executing it better than the French as Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lionel Messi timed their runs to latch onto the passes.
But Argentina wasn't perfect in front of goal, where Sabella and his players will regretfully say the opportunity at Argentina's third World Cup title was lost.
"To be perfect," Sabella said, "we needed to be more efficient."
The missed chances ranged from unlucky to incomprehensible.
First, there was Higuain being played clear onto goal with only goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to beat but he somehow pulled his shot wide to the left. Then there was Messi getting behind the German defense and slipping the ball by Neuer to put a scoring chance on a silver platter for his teammates, but it went for naught as Jerome Boateng alertly cleared the ball off the line.
After Messi missed the far post by inches with a hard, rolling shot – a chance he typically buries – substitute Rodrigo Palacio blew a golden opportunity in the first extra time when his chip attempt over Neuer missed the net completely.
Against a Germany side that never beats itself, Argentina needed to capitalize on at least one chance so it could dig in and defend and tempt a German back line to play an even higher line to get caught on a counterattack. The lack of finishing was the missing ingredient to Sabella's recipe for success.
"The players are quite bitter. They're sad," Sabella said. "We're all sad because we had a huge dream to make it to the final. No doubt we wanted to win the final."
The better team won the game and the tournament. The Germans did to Argentina what they had done to their previous six opponents (except for a short stretch against Ghana): keep possession with a suffocating midfield and slice apart the defense with patience and precision passing.
But even coach Joachim Loew knew how lucky Germany was to not give up a goal, especially on Higuain's chance that was created by Toni Kroos' header that went backward.
"That was very dangerous for us," Loew said.
Criticism will surely be sent Messi's way for not coming up with one last piece of magic to produce the World Cup winning goal. And on Sunday, Messi went through stretches where he was content to let the game come to him. But he was supported by a group of forwards operating at less than 100 percent.
Sergio Aguero came on at halftime in place of the blue-collar Lavezzi but clearly did not have his trademark burst to get by defenders. Boateng is an exceptional defender, athletically gifted enough to play right back and center back, but on at least two occasions he was able to easily dislodge the ball from Aguero. That would never happen if Aguero wasn't carrying a thigh injury.
Even more costly for Messi and Argentina was the absence of Angel Di Maria. He was also dealing with a thigh injury and the Argentines hoped the speedy winger could contribute something to the cause, but Sabella opted for Palacio with his final sub in extra time.
With just seconds remaining – after Mario Goetze scored in the 113th minute for the eventual game-winner – Argentina had one last chance with a free kick about 25 yards out. Messi lined up to take it and, fittingly, he sent the ball flying well over the cross bar for another missed opportunity.
“I’m very proud of the boys. They played an extraordinary World Cup,” Sabella said. “They improved as they moved on. It was very exciting to see them give their all.
“They can look at themselves in the mirror and say they gave everything for the national team.”
Everything but put the ball in the net when they needed it most.
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