Argentina had to move past Diego Maradona before it could move forward to World Cup final

Shahan Ahmed
Yahoo Sports

For complete World Cup 2014 coverage visit Yahoo Sports and follow @YahooSoccer

Before Lionel Messi could fathom moving beyond Diego Maradona in Argentine soccer history, Argentina had to publicly divorce its football team from Maradona.

At the 2010 World Cup, Argentina met Germany in the quarterfinals with Maradona on the sidelines as the Argentine manager. However, Argentina’s greatest player of years’ past played the role of Luiz Felipe Scolari and Argentina played the role of Brazil.

Like Scolari in Brazil's crushing 7-1 defeat to Germany, Maradona implored Messi and company to play with emotion and courage, but, ultimately, a lack of tactics doomed the South Americans as the Germans crushed the Argentine spirit without remorse. After only three minutes, Thomas Müller put Germany ahead and Argentina never gained its footing at Green Point Stadium as the Germans went on to rout Argentina 4-0.

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In the wake of the embarrassment, the process to separate the legendary Maradona from the Argentina national football team took motion. By the end of summer 2010, Maradona was no longer managing Argentina, and that action ultimately allowed Messi and Argentina to stand at the doorstep of immortality.

The 2014 World Cup final and that memorable quarterfinal in Cape Town have more similarities than differences when reviewing the cast of characters.

Along with Messi, Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez, Martin Demichelis, Gonzalo Higuain, Maxi Rodriguez, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Romero all took part for Argentina. For Germany, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Müller all helped massacre Argentina in South Africa, with Joakim Loew directing the German assault from the sidelines.

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Entering Sunday's final at Maracana Stadium, Germany is tactically set up in almost an identical fashion with identical parts to the 2010 squad. For the South Americans, the core of the squad may be the same, but the tactics and personality of the squad have been completely transformed.

Truth be told, both Argentina and Germany have grown in the four years since their last World Cup meeting.

Germany’s 7-1 rout of Brazil in Belo Horizonte speaks for the Germans' ability to ignore outside influences and focus on the pitch. The progression for Germany is a straight line that is easy to trace back to 2006, when Germany fell to eventual champion Italy in the semifinal. Incidentally, Germany defeated Argentina in penalty kicks during the quarterfinal round in that World Cup as well.

For Argentina, the maturation and presence of structure is obvious, even if the line of progression was not as straight as it was for Germany.

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After Maradona’s managerial mess, Argentina looked to Sergio Batista to guide the national team. Previously, Batista had managed the 2008 Argentina team to a gold medal in Beijing, so he was familiar with the personalities and players. However, Batista failed his first test when Argentina crashed out of the 2011 Copa America, hosted by Argentina. Following the tournament, Batista was quickly ousted and replaced by Alejandro Sabella.

Sabella immediately named Messi captain, taking the honor away from Mascherano. Although he had his critics, Sabella put together an impressive run in South America’s World Cup qualification campaign, registering only two defeats in 16 matches. With Messi empowered, Argentina scored the most goals on the continent, 35, and Messi’s personal tally of 10 only trailed Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, 11.

Sabella did not entirely overhaul the squad and ostracize players who came through previous regimes. Pablo Zabaleta, Ezekial Garay, Lucas Biglia and Marcos Rojo had all been included in Batista’s 2011 Copa America squad, and all these players have been vital to Sabella’s 2014 World Cup plans.

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Instead of overhauling the team, he placed the armband and attacking responsibilities on Messi’s shoulders. The attack was built around the best player on the planet, and outsiders even wondered out loud if the little magician was not really the man in charge of the dressing room and the team’s tactics.

Sabella correctly identified that the attack was not the reason Argentina had been undressed by the Germans in 2010. It was the defense. Maradona famously displayed hubris by putting out four center backs in his backline, and Sabella’s chief focus became avoiding a repeat of the quarterfinal disaster in Cape Town.

Along with scoring the most goals in South American qualification, Sabella’s Argentina allowed only 15 goals in 16 matches, good enough for second best behind only Colombia.

In the 2014 World Cup, Argentina’s defense has four clean sheets. Zabaleta, Rojo and Garay have been three players that have been sure starters when available. After Federico Fernandez started the tournament, Sabella decided to go with the experience of Demichelis to complete his back line. The structure and stability of the back line is hardly in question entering Sunday’s final.

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As an extension of the defense, Fernando Gago did not provide enough cover for the manager, so Lucas Biglia replaced the Boca Juniors midfielder to be Mascherano’s defensive aid a step ahead of the back line.

Argentina is no longer a free-flowing bunch reliant on scoring goals to win matches. In fact, the Albiceleste only scored two goals in three knockout games. More importantly, Argentina did not allow a single tally following the group stages.

It may not always be a joy to watch, but Argentina is tactically built to play defense, pray for Messi’s genius and produce results.

For Germany, the World Cup curse is easy to document. After losing in the knockout rounds to eventual champions Spain in 2010, Italy in 2006 and Brazil in 2002, the Germans hope the current crop has matured enough to finally claim the country’s fourth World Cup trophy.

Argentina’s defensive focus and the magic of Messi, however, hope to add to Germany’s heartbreaking trend of losing to World Cup champions.

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Shahan Ahmed was a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports’ World Cup 2014 coverage and has also covered the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League for Yahoo! Sports. Contact Shahan on Twitter: @ShahanLA

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