If Angel Di Maria suffers the same fate as Neymar, writes Gary Meenaghan, 'the decision by Sabella to leave Tevez out of the squad' will likely be his great regret.
With Di Maria down, Tevez snub comes back into question
For the second successive day, a South American side qualified for a World Cup semi-final only to see their delight slightly sapped by an injury to a key player.
While Neymar’s fractured vertebra has ruled him out of the rest of Brazil’s tournament, Argentina fans should be hoping today the pain that Angel Di Maria felt in his right thigh does not have a similar end result.
Di Maria was substituted after half an hour of his country’s narrow 1-0 win over Belgium on Saturday. Up until that point, Alejandro Sabella’s team had looked forbidding going forward.
Lionel Messi was pulling the strings in midfield, while Di Maria’s pace on the right was causing all sorts of problems for Jan Vertonghen, who was pushing forward from left-back.
It was Di Maria’s lobbed pass that deflected off a Belgian leg and fell perfectly for Gonzalo Higuain to be able to swivel and strike first time past Thibault Courtois.
Later, an outrageous pass by Messi, in behind Vincent Kompany, found Di Maria and he should have done better.
Had he been afforded a second chance maybe he would have buried it like he did so clinically against Switzerland.
Instead, the Real Madrid winger was forced to limp off with a painful grimace and an appointment with a specialist today.
He was replaced by Benfica’s Enzo Perez, who is better in a central position. Immediately, Argentina’s outlet wide was gone. Immediately, they looked less threatening for it.
In fact, save for a stoppage-time counter-attack by Messi, the only other time Argentina came close to scoring again was when Higuain showed clever feet to nutmeg Kompany and clip the cross bar with a rising drive.
On another afternoon, the miss might have cost his side dearly, but the Napoli forward’s earlier strike saw him instead accept loud applause when he was replaced late in the tie by Fernando Gago. He was also – predictably – named the Fifa man of the match.
Higuain had not scored for his country in six matches or, if you prefer, had not netted in more than 500 minutes of play.
Against Switzerland, he had missed a hatful of headers, each one intensifying the criticism aimed at Sabella, the coach who decided to leave the tenacious Carlos Tevez at home in favour of 32-year-old Inter Milan forward Rodrigo Palacio.
Higuain said he was remaining calm about his goal drought but also said every striker lives on goals. He and Sabella were – and to an extent are – living on the edge.
The hope for Argentina is that now Higuain is off the mark, he will be able to continue firing.
Yet for all his ruthlessness on Saturday – and his nutmeg of Kompany was one of the nimblest pieces of play we have seen this month – he is not a dogged forward in the mould of Tevez. Against more ambitious sides than Belgium, his cameo would not be enough.
Tevez, the outcast Juventus forward, would have offered Sabella a more dynamic terrier-like alternative; a relentless, tireless striker similar to a stocky Luis Suarez.
In Sergio Aguero, Sabella may have another option, but the Manchester City forward has only just returned to training so cannot yet be relied upon.
That all drives home the importance of Di Maria. Not an all-out forward, his speed and tricks on the wing scare opponents and open up space for teammates, while also allowing him to provide his own goal threat.
Sabella spoke Saturday of the importance of his players not being selfish and Di Maria is the example.
Should the winger’s thigh scan later today come back with troublesome news, the decision by Sabella to leave Tevez out of the squad could also come back to bite the coach just as badly.
Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE