Now Argentina have kicked off their World Cup campaign with two fairly convincing wins over both Nigeria and South Korea, can we finally start to talk about them as potential winners?
Their coach Diego Maradona, attracts a disproportionate amount of attention, obviously due to his status in the game as a player. As manager so far, he has overseen a mixed qualifying campaign that required some last ditch moments to get them over the finishing line and has put forward some bizarre team selections, but with the strength of talent that they possess in the forward line, possibly one of the greatest for any World Cup side in history, will that outweigh the relative weakness of their backline?
A lot has been made of Maradona’s quite frankly barmy selection policy for the World Cup, with the ridiculous exclusions of Zanetti, Cambiasso, Lucho Gonzalez and Gabriel Milito only adding fuel to the fire, but based off their opening two performances at least, they deserve to be ranked as serious contenders, something which the scapegoat management of Maradona has stopped them from being until now.
Before the tournament, I personally believed that this side were capable of reaching the semi-finals such was the embarrassment of riches that they possess even though there is a worry about their defence. Names such as Messi, Higuain, Diego Milito, Aguero, Tevez and Di Maria are not to be taken lightly and when on form are a match for any side. So it has proved to be, with Maradona’s charges helping turn a nervy 2-1 lead at halftime against South Korea, into a resounding 4-1 victory, despite a wobbly period at the start of the second-half. I just that it’s this ability to call on the aforementioned talents above and the strength in depth that Maradona has on the bench, that has the ability to come on and change a game, that marks them as being really threatening and they’ve been written off all too easily up until now.
But, and this has remained a major but against their candidacy for World Cup supremacy, their defence remains a tad shaky to say the least. It’s clear for all to see that they don’t have the best back four – they have a left winger playing at right back, a holding man playing at centre back, an ageing Heinze at left back and an inexperienced keeper’ between the sticks. Of course they do have the hulking and somewhat maniacal presence of Walter Samuel to help marshal the back four, yet the feeling remains that if you get at this defence, it may crumble under the pressure.
It would be hard to disagree with that view based on the evidence and most people predict as soon as they face a serious test that the sides shaky defence will be found wanting. But I still feel that no matter how bad their defence is, the forward line might just be able to bail them out in a ‘we’re gonna score one more than you’ mentality.
Against South Korea, Lee Chung-Yong managed to finish with a deft flick towards the goal just before half-time after catching the cumbersome Demichellis in possession, and all of a sudden Argentina’s Jekyll and Hyde character resurfaced and turned what was a routine win into a challenging one. The second half, South Korea as you would imagine, started brightly and with more purpose and the result was anything but assured. But then, and this is crucial to note, the strength in depth of talent up top managed to drag them out of a hole, with Messi instrumental in laying on chance after chance for his side. I fear that with an on-song frontline finally beginning to gel after years of underachievement, a degree of mental resilience in evidence and a siege mentality based around their coach Maradona, the signs are ominous and they look like a serious threat.
It’s worth remembering that out of their much-criticised back four, their two centre halves contested a Champions league final and their left back won the Lique 1 title this term, so they’re not quite the hopeless bunch of buffoons as some people would have you believe. Granted, Gutierrez does still remain a concern in an unfamiliar role at right back but they’re not the mugs they’re being made out to be by the ignorant press.
It’s fair to say that bigger tests await this side, but with Messi in form, the ubiquitous Javier Mascherano patrolling the middle of the pitch with barely controlled menace and the tournament’s top scorer up front, despite his poor finishing in the opening game against Nigeria in Gonzalo Higuain, then you have the basic ingredients for a decent tournament side. In 2006 Argentina looked to be the frontrunner for the tournament after displaying an intelligence of movement and control until they were knocked out in the quarter-finals to a decent Germany side, and is often the case as happened in 2006 with Italy, it’s often the unfancied giant that pulls through.
It doesn’t take a great team to get to the semi-finals of the World Cup. England in Italia 90 reached that same stage with 2 wins and 4 draws and Terry Venables much-vaunted Euro 96 team reached the semis with 2 wins and 3 draws, so consistency is the name of the game. But with a side managed by Diego Maradona anything but reliable, it may just be in their unpredictable nature that they find their salvation, and as the saying goes ‘expect the unexpected’.
What does everyone else think – are Maradona’s team a serious threat? Or is it simply just bit of good form going into the knockout phases?
Written By James McManus