Over to you, Tata: Can Barcelona's nearly-man guide Messi's men to the top prize?

The former Blaugrana boss struggled at Camp Nou and, despite being promptly reunited with the No.10, he is unlikely to find the going any easier with the Albiceleste
By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent

No matter what he does in the remainder of his career, Alejandro Sabella is always likely to wonder 'what if?'

Little more than two weeks after he so nearly led Argentina to World Cup glory, Sabella decided to walk away from the role. The Argentine Football Association (AFA) confirmed that the ex-Estudiantes boss had given all he could to the position, with Gerardo 'Tata' Martino finally given the job on August 12 after a fortnight of strong speculation.

But while Sabella became the first person to take the Albiceleste to a World Cup final in 24 years, they will begin the qualification stage for Russia 2018 knowing it will be at least 32 years between meals when it comes to the ultimate triumph.

Some will claim Sabella is partly to blame for that. They will point to him choosing Enzo Perez over Ever Banega and Sergio Romero instead of Willy Caballero. They will say that it may have been different had Carlos Tevez been there. 'What if?' 'What if?'

REUNITED | How Messi & Martino did at Barcelona


"Contrary to media reports last year and despite the fact that they both hail from Rosario in Argentina, Lionel Messi and Gerardo Martino only met when the latter took over at Barcelona last summer.

"The two enjoyed a positive relationship early on and could often be seen laughing and joking on the training ground.

"Things became more difficult as Messi took time out to recover from injury and the forward was unhappy at being substituted in some games and later due to being played on the right by Tata in others.

"The 27-year-old was also unhappy at some of his coach's tactical decisions late on in the season, but the two remain on good terms and parted ways amicably – even though Barca ended the campaign with only the Spanish Supercopa to their name."

Ben Hayward | Goal's Spanish Football Writer

But they weren't saying that as they overcame each hurdle on the assault course laid in front of them in Brazil, with more and more Argentines crossing the border on long car journeys as each round was negotiated. Sabella had them believing.

Perez, as it turned out, was thrown into action at the business end of the tournament and succeeded. Romero's penalty saves saw Argentina past Netherlands in the semi-finals to book their place at the Maracana. And had Gonzalo Higuain reacted with a cooler head when being presented with a gilt-edged chance by Toni Kroos' header in the first half of the final, nobody would have said a word about Tevez.

The Juventus striker could easily have been called up only to be just as divisive a figure as he has previously proven himself to be - though there is always the chance he would have made the difference, too.

Unlike Tevez, though, Banega had been championed by Messi. Sabella decided that what he needed most in midfield was solidity in front of a suspect back line, sacrificing the Valencia man for the more durable approach offered by the likes of Lucas Biglia, Perez, Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano.

Had Banega been included, Messi could have found himself in more dangerous positions more often in the latter stages, but the cost may have been the concession of more chances at the other end.

The bottom line is that Higuain and Messi both had great opportunities in the final and never took them. Argentina may not have played the most thrilling football of the tournament, but they created the positions needed to win it, and as such have only themselves to blame.

The result is that Sabella hands on the baton to Martino without having a World Cup to pass on with it, despite having prepared them well enough to put them in a winning position.

Martino, of course, is fresh from an unsuccessful spell with Barcelona. After picking up the Spanish Supercopa on away goals against Atletico Madrid, Diego Simeone's side would come back to bite him. First, they knocked Barca out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, marking a first failure to reach the last four since 2007. Next up, they won La Liga at Camp Nou on the final day of the season.

His employment of Messi was always going to be one of the greater talking points of his time in Spain, and the difficulties he found in keeping his star man happy will leave many wondering exactly what he can do to avoid stumbling across some of the same issues over which Sabella was left scratching his head.

The Tevez issue will always be there. The best way to counter-balance an attacking style with a strong defence will remain a concern. And the need to get Messi playing at his very best when it really matters has still not been entirely addressed by an Argentina coach.

Martino will once more be handed the privilege of coaching one of football's greatest ever players, but Sabella will be the first to tell him that there is a thin line between the ultimate glory and the unending sense of what could have been.