Though two rounds of games remain in the South American qualifying competition, Argentina have already made sure of their place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. La Albiceleste completed the job in some style too, sweeping Paraguay aside in Asuncion, a venue where fortune has rarely smiled on them in the past.
Tipped by many as a certainty to qualify in the absence of Brazil from the competition, Argentina duly lived up to expectations and can now turn their thoughts to what will be their 16th world finals appearance.
FIFA.com looks at four of the key factors in their impressive surge to Brazil 2014.
Sabella’s guiding hand
In steering his side to the finals, Alejandro Sabella drew on all the experience he acquired in his playing career and in the four years he spent as an assistant to former head coach Daniel Passarella, a stint that included Argentina’s appearance at France 1998.
The 58-year-old had no hesitation in switching personnel in a number of positions, especially in defence, though his primary concern was to build a solid, stable squad by pursuing a consistent selection policy and steering clear of controversies surrounding big-name absentees such as Carlos Tevez. He also gave Lionel Messi a solid supporting cast, allowing the Barcelona star to finally replicate his club form for his country on a consistent basis
The stats reflect the wisdom of Sabella’s ways, with his side winning 69 percent of the points available to them in the qualifiers, three percentage points more than Argentina’s overall average in FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Sabella made Messi his captain before the competition got under way, and the added responsibility seemed to inspire the player, who became the team’s driving force on the pitch. “I think he’s done well,” said the coach in July last year. “He’s got even more authority in the team now than he had before.”
La Pulga shouldered the responsibility in trademark fashion, maintaining his usual low-key approach to media duties and doing his talking on the pitch. In linking up to perfection with his team-mates while also turning on his unique individual style, Messi connected with the fans, further enhancing his status in a squad in which he is both respected and cherished.
The fact that he has now scored 20 goals in 22 games under Sabella is a reflection of Messi’s increasing ease on international duty.
Co-stars of the highest calibre
While the spotlight is almost invariably trained on Messi, it would be a major injustice not to recognise the sterling contributions made by his high-performing colleagues in the Albiceleste front line: Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. Together with La Pulga they make up one of the most feared attacks in world football, having scored no less than 90 percent of the 30 goals Argentina have racked up in the qualifiers to date.
Nor should the midfield roles performed by Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago be overlooked. Both would now appear to be first-choice picks, with Mascherano’s ball-winning skills complementing Gago’s polished, precise passing, providing an essentially attack-minded team with some essential ballast.
The defence is the one department that remains a work in progress, though that is hardly a surprise in a side that puts the emphasis on attack and has had to make to do without the services of stalwarts such as Walter Samuel, Gabriel Heinze, Nicolas Burdisso and Martin Demichelis.
The win in Barranquilla
Sabella said it after qualification was clinched in Asuncion: “The key moment of the qualifying competition was the win against Colombia in Barranquilla, because we’d just lost in Venezuela and drawn with Bolivia. They took the lead too and it was really hot, but we turned it round and gave ourselves a major boost.”
Aguero had a major part to play in Argentina’s comeback that day, scoring their winner seven minutes from time and convincing his coach in the process that he was the missing cog that could make the Albiceleste attack click. From that game on El Kun became Messi’s trusted sidekick as Argentina drew on the very formula that fired them to success at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005.