Manchester City v. Barcelona. A contest tighter than anticipated. Messi, ineffective. Barca appearing lost as a result. Perhaps Martin Demichelis felt bad for his compatriot. Perhaps he was looking at a pair of tatas in the stands that caught his eye. Perhaps his ponytail got in the way. Whatever the reason, as Messi somehow sprung the City offside trap and rushed from an improbable angle to shoot with his left foot at Joe Hart, the Argentine defender slid in from behind. Was it a penalty, was it not? The debate will rage forever. Was it contact? Yes. A red card? Without a shadow of a doubt.
Barcelona capitulated rather meekly to Atletico Madrid later in the competition. Their problem? Another Argentine. Not Messi, no no he was below his Godly levels all year. It was down the other end of the field. It was Javier Mascherano. It doesn’t take an expert to know Barca don’t have adequate cover at center back. It also does not need a brain capable of understanding the theory of relativity that Mascherano is certainly not the man from midfield to drop into defence. Yet surprisingly Barca almost won the league that way. Whether a damning indictment of the lack of quality in La Liga, or a praise of Mascherano is open to debate.
And then the World Cup rolled around. Fanfare. Hooplah. Messi v. Ronaldo v. Robben v. Neymar v. James v. The Germany Team. Wow. It would be epic and Argentina were touted as pre-tournament favorites. Their one weakness was written about as their defence. Of course it was. The front four were Di Maria, Aguero, Higuain and of course – Messi. Their back four? Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay and Rojo. With Mascherano shielding them. Disaster, right? Wrong.
Every match Argentina won in the tournament was by a margin of a single goal. First game 2-1, second match 1-0 and the third and final group game was 3-2. Thereafter a 1-0 scoreline sufficed till the semifinals where the Dutch took the Albiceleste to extra time and penalties. After a scoreless 120 minutes, Sergio Romero who spent the season warming the AS Monaco bench was the hero in a sensational triumph. For a defence expected to crumble and require the attackers to outscore the opposition, conceding only four goals was a spectacular achievement. Not only in the context of the tournament, but on a personal level.
Martin Demichelis had shed his trademark ponytail and was suddenly and magically reborn. Marshalling the defence and sweeping up loose balls like no other defender on the planet. Where Thiago Silva faded for Brazil, Demichelis seemed to flourish for their arch-rivals. And a similar rebirth occurred with Mascherano. Put back in his favored role of midfield disruptor, the former captain played with his heart on his sleeve the entire tournament and made crucial interceptions, tackles and last-ditch clearances (including a heart-stopping one in the semifinal stoppage time off Arjen Robben) to make Barca fans purr for a return to midfield for the Argentine.
Of course, Demichelis and Masch were shunted to the side as Messi won the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament. But across the Argentina team, arguably no one performed as well as the former duo. Their positioning, awareness of space and reading of the game ensured Argentina made their first final in more than twenty years. The fact that both were taken out of play with a sumptuous diagonal ball to Andre Schurrle for the winning goal by Gotze in the final was their only blip. The only moment to tarnish what was a near perfect World Cup for both veterans. Both gave their blood, sweat and tears for the Albiceleste and both deserved the trophy that still eludes them and Messi and the star studded Argentine side.
The shame is that by the time Russia 2018 rolls round, Messi will be 30 and Masch and Demichelis will probably have long since retired. Time is the foe for all footballers, but none more so than the defensive players. These two have redeemed themselves beyond all question this World Cup. And if they carry that form into the club season, watch out for the Argentines!