Argentina‘s dance goes on, as their fans sing, all the way to Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal match against Croatia and then potentially a shot at eternal glory in Sunday’s final, or to a melancholic end to the Lionel Messi-era in Saturday’s third-place consolation game.

Barring the gateway to glory are the very opponents against whom, in a perverse kind of way, this whole unlikely adventure became a possibility.

Argentina met Croatia in the second group-stage game of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Albiceleste were coached at the time by Jorge Sampaoli — highly rated, highly talented, highly volatile. It always looked like a bad fit. Argentina lacked the players, and especially the defenders, to execute Sampaoli’s trademark dynamic high pressing game.

Croatia took them apart. And in the closing stages of a 3-0 win, Sampaoli stood on the touchline swearing at the opposing players. It was an awful image, and a moment when Argentina’s football association began to wonder whether it was a mistake giving him a long-term contract.

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Things improved later in the tournament, with Argentina’s experienced players taking on some of the responsibility. They beat Nigeria to make it into the knockouts, and were not humiliated in a round-of-16 defeat to eventual champions France. But — although it would cost them — a change had to be made. Sampaoli was fired and, initially on a caretaker basis with the undeniable virtue of coming cheap, Lionel Scaloni was named to replace him.

Now, more than four years later, here we are. Scaloni has taken Argentina to their first senior title since 1993 — when they won last year’s Copa America — and now to a World Cup semifinal.

It has been quite a promotion for someone with no previous senior coaching experience, who was on staff in 2018 in the relatively lowly position of an observer of potential future opponents.

But experience can sometimes count for little and it was Scaloni who celebrated a victory over a far more prestigious counterpart on Friday. Argentina’s quarterfinal win over Netherlands and coach Louis van Gaal may have only come from a penalty shootout, but bar the late Dutch rally at the end of normal time, Scaloni’s men had the match under control.

It ended up being a game where the less experienced coach emerged with considerable credit. A coach has three main responsibilities: select the team, determine the strategy and establish the emotional tone in which the work takes place. Emotionally Argentina responded extremely well after losing their lead in normal time in such dramatic fashion; they shrugged it off and were by far the better side in extra time.

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Albiceleste fans celebrate the Lautaro Martinez decisive penalty kick against Netherlands to send Argentina into World Cup semifinals.

Tactically, too, Scaloni has had to go to the well — and has responded to the challenge offered by a potentially demoralising shock opening day defeat to Saudi Arabia. Saudi coach Herve Renard had obviously studied Argentina long and hard. He had seen that Scaloni’s team aimed to have the ball, weaving their patient midfield patterns, moving the opposing defence around until they could slip Messi close enough to goal to cause a problem. So his side forced Argentina to play a different type of game, pressing high, putting them under pressure and taking them into a type of game that they did not want to play.

For its boldness, the Saudi win must rank as one of the all-time greatest World Cup upsets, but it did not derail Argentina because Scaloni managed to marry two contradictory impulses. He had enough faith in his original idea to stick to his guns, while also recognising the need for change.

Scaloni made the immediate realisation that Argentina’s then 36-game unbeaten run did not count for much. Things would be harder now; adaptations would be needed. They would not be able to dictate their own merry rhythm throughout all of the games. Moving forward, Messi would have to pick his moment — which was more likely to come as the game wore on and space opened up.

With Messi operating decisively but sporadically, there was a need for more mobility in the front line — and so centre-forward Lautaro Martinez gave way to Julian Alvarez, a striker with the soul of a midfielder. That allowed them to get rattle off wins against Mexico, Poland, and Australia.

And then, specifically against the Dutch, another change was needed. Ever since the final minutes of a friendly with Estonia in June, Argentina have been flirting with a look at a three centre-back formation. They closed down some of their earlier World Cup games with this formation, but against Netherlands it was how they started.

Ecuador had made the switch with success against the Dutch during their group-stage draw, and Argentina followed suit. As the United States found out in their round-of-16 loss, Netherlands’ sharpest attacking weapon is Denzel Dumfries, surging forward from right wing-back. Ecuador closed him down and so did Argentina — and with the exception of the late charge at the end of normal time, the Oranje never posed a threat. Scaloni’s tinkering paid off.

Croatia pose a different challenge and Scaloni will be pondering on how to win the midfield battle, most notably against venerable Croatia captain Luka Modric. But he will surely come up with something more effective than his predecessor Sampaoli could manage four years ago.



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Scaloni’s flexibility helps Argentina, Messi at World Cup