World Cup final preview: Sabella´s last stand
When: Sunday, July 13, 3 p.m. ET
Where: Estadio Maracaná. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)
LeBron James may have been the biggest sports figure that moved on Friday night, but in the football world no announcement could be bigger than Alejandro Sabella´s decision to step down as Argentina´s manager after the World Cup final.
That is, of course, if what his agent Eugenio López said about his stepping down comes to fruition, because Sabella himself said that his mind is solely on Sunday´s match.
Pound-for-pound, to borrow a boxing term, Germany could just be superior to Argentina. However, Sabella´s tactical wit and prowess is just as important for Argentina´s success as Lionel Messi, who is the big equalizer on the pitch, is for the team´s overall performance.
In 2010, Joachim Löw ran circles around Diego Maradona as the German manager´s tactical masterpiece surpassed Maradona´s ¨put the 11 best players on the pitch and see what happens¨ philosophy by so much that Argentina never stood a chance and Germany won 4-0.
In retrospect, that sounds a lot like what Löw did to Luiz Felipe Scolari during Tuesday´s historic, astounding, unforgettable 7-1 thrashing of the World Cup hosts. Intimidation is best achieved with actions, not with words, and that is what Germany just did against Brazil.
However, Sabella is not intimidated, and just like he was no Maradona as a player, he isn´t one as a manager either, and he will go toe-to-toe with Löw in the world´s greatest tactical chess match with everything at stake.
It´s just the World Cup final, it´s not like the entire world is watching or anything.
What makes Sabella stand apart from everyone else is something he doesn´t get enough credit for: Being versatile and, most importantly, not being stubborn.
Sabella arrived as Argentina´s coach in 2011 and he saw a team broken by an elimination in the Copa America they had just hosted. He then proceeded to employ a 4-4-2 formation, but a loss to Venezuela and a draw at home to Bolivia in World Cup Qualifying forced him to realize that he needed to call on the ¨Fantastic Four¨.
The 4-3-3 formation with Messi, Aguero and Higuaín up front and Di María as practically an extra forward was a steamroller that allowed Argentina to qualify comfortably and, most importantly, forge a new, long lasting identity.
Then the World Cup arrived and Sabella followed his conservative instincts, trying out a 5-3-2 that nobody liked against Bosnia. However, Sabella quickly recognized his mistake and went back to a 4-3-3 that didn´t last long because of injuries to Aguero and Di María.
Those injuries forced Sabella to come back to the 4-4-2, and he managed to allow the team to not only overcome two major injury blows, but to also thrive in spite of them as he convinced Enzo Perez that he is a world class player and Ezequiel Lavezzi that he can be more than just a winger as a midfielder with defensive responsibilities. That is what great managers do: React, adjust, overcome and squeeze the best out of your players, all 23 of them.
Sabella has also transformed an offensive powerhouse into a defensive force that hash´t allowed a single goal in the last three knockout stage matches and just three in six matches, all in the span of a single month. Of a single tournament.
As always, Sabella has kept his starting lineup close to the vest and hasn´t revealed anything yet. Could Aguero start for the first time since June 25? Will Di María be well enough to come off the bench? How is Mascherano´s butt? (Seriously, that is a totally legitimate question).
All those questions will be answered on Sunday at the Maracaná, where Argentina will attempt to end a 21-year title drought and 28 without winning a World Cup. Sabella will have a lot to say in the matter, and you can bet that he will have an ace up his sleeve before he rides off into the sunset.