Comment and Analysis @danielstorey85
World Cup: Javier Mascherano's importance to Argentina against Belgium makes a mockery of one-man team talk
Argentina have been dismissed as a one-man team, but after an excellent performance in the 1-0 win over Belgium, it's clear that this does a disservice to the contributions of Javier Mascherano, writes Daniel Storey.
Last Updated: 06/07/14 4:46pm
This was still not an entirely commanding display in the manner of which many may have expected (or hoped) from Argentina, but the end result will still be intensely pleasing for followers of La Albiceleste.
After two consecutive quarter-final defeats to European opposition, this was a case of third time lucky - Argentina have made the final four of the competition for the first time since 1990. They are now the favourites to win the World Cup in the back yard of their bitterest rivals.
"We still haven't got started," were the critical words of Diego Maradona in the build-up to the tie against Belgium, but Argentina got busy as soon as referee Nicola Rizzoli had started the match. Gonzalo Higuain's early rifled finish (his first of the tournament) continued the trend of early quarter-final goals, and from that moment on Alejandro Sabella's side carried out an efficient containing job on their stifled opponents.
Maradona's other criticism of Sabella's side until now had been a reliance on their captain, creator and finisher. "They need to get it into their heads that we can't be Sporting Messi," Diego remarked in typically pithy fashion, and it will have pleased both the legend and all Argentina supporters immensely to see a previously under par Higuain share the goalscoring burden.
That is not to say that the Argentinian magician of this generation demonstrated anything but his almost continuous brilliant best. After the close attention paid by Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami in the previous round, Messi appeared to have more space in which to dribble at Belgium's defence - perhaps that was merely as a result of Marouane Fellaini being asked to single-handedly deal with the danger. It was a striking mismatch, and Messi's pass to Angel di Maria for his first-half chance was a flash of the sublime in an already majestic performance.
However, the foolishness of Maradona's accusation that Argentina are a one-man team was highlighted by another imperious performance from Messi's club team-mate and close friend Javier Mascherano. In a tournament dominated by the brilliance of no. 10s and central defenders, Mascherano might just be the midfielder of this World Cup.
There is a sense that Mascherano was perhaps slightly underrated before this tournament, or at least passing somewhat under the radar. The long-term injury sustained by Carles Puyol forced the Argentinean into a central defensive role at Barcelona and, although his form never let his side down, his lack of dynamism in midfield often left Barca short in that area. With Ezequiel Garay, Martin Demichelis and Federico Fernandez vying for two positions at international level, Mascherano is able to step forward and do what he does best. His excellence has been notable.
Mascherano's game can effectively be broken down into two distinct facets. Firstly, this is a player that thrives on tackling, revelling in halting the progress of opposition midfielders. No player in this World Cup has made more tackles per game, and yet he has committed just four fouls in five matches - impressive discipline from a player who gained a reputation for being hot-headed when in the Premier League.
However, this is not simply a destroyer. No other player in the competition has made more passes than Mascherano, and a completion rate of 92% demonstrates a significant ability to both retain possession and act as the catalyst for Argentina attacks. He made more passes per game in the group stage than Andrea Pirlo, and the Italian's success rate was just fractionally higher. That's indicative of a player performing a dual role for his side, a hugely useful asset to have.
Rather than taking our Argentinian soundbites from rent-a-quote Maradona therefore, we should perhaps instead look to the midweek words of former international Claudio Caniggia. "What Mascherano is doing is sensational," Caniggia told Mundo Deportivo. "He is fundamental, almost the continuation of the coach on the pitch."
Against Belgium, Mascherano was almost faultless, dealing with almost embarrassing ease with the presence of Kevin de Bruyne, and neutralising the threat of Eden Hazard whenever he drifted infield. Mascherano acted as a calming influence, crucial in helping his more inexperienced compatriots (Fernando Gago, Lucas Biglia and Enzo Perez, who replaced the injured Di Maria) to nullify any sniff of a Belgian comeback. After six late goals in four matches, there was to be no late gift for Marc Wilmots' side. In truth, Belgium have largely flattered to deceive throughout this competition - despite the hype, they will not be sorely missed.
Inevitably, it will be Messi and the seemingly rejuvenated Higuain who take the headlines. Football has an engrained obsession with the finisher and creator, whilst those carrying out the less glamourous tasks are perennially ignored.
But if Argentina win this World Cup, one suspects Messi will thank his friend and colleague for his hard work and determination.
If Leo is the swan on the water, ever graceful and elegant, Mascherano acts as the leg, hidden from view but driving things forward. This is a vital cog in Argentina's machine, making a mockery of the label of 'one man team'.
Watch Javier Mascherano in La Liga and Champions League action on Sky Sports 5 next season. Activate our brand new channel by clicking here.