Argentina are safely through to the last sixteen, after two late goals were enough to overcome a negative but stubborn Greece. The victory ensured La Albiceleste top group B with maximum points and now face a mouth watering repeat of the 2006 second round clash with fellow Latin Americans Mexico.
Needing only a point to secure top spot in the group, Maradona made seven changes to the side which faced South Korea, resting several key figures. Nicolas Otamendi, Clemente Rodriguez and Nicolas Burdisso were drafted into the defence, Juan Veron and Mario Bolatti entered the midfeild and Segio Aguero partnered Diego Millito in attack. Greece meanwhile, employed what was essentilay an ultra defensive 9-1 formation, with lone striker Georgios Samaras virtually the only player to enter the Argentinian half. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise but the Greek approach was startlingly negative, Otto Rehhagel’s men seemingly willing to only play for a draw even when their progression depended on victory.
Such was the negativity of the Greeks that the game struggled to take off as a contest and despite dominating possession Argentina struggled to create any sort of breakthrough. Even Lionel Messi could do little to liven up proceedings, rigidly man marked by Genoa’s Sokratis Papastathoppulos the Barcelona forward struggled to find space and on the few occasions he did was promptly fouled. That said La Selección did create a few openings, Aguero managing to turn behind the defence only to see his shot saved, while Veron and Messi stung the gloves of Greek goal keeper Alexandaros Tzorvas from long range. Probably the best chance of the half resulted from the combination of the two Rodriguezs. Clementes’ cross picking out Maxi, only for the Liverpool wingers close range shot to be saved by the excellent Tzorvas.
Messi and his shadow
The second half began with a shocking passage of play, a Greek attack. Controlling a long ball, Samaras manged to get the better of a shaky looking Demichelis only to pull his shot wide. It was certainly a scare for Maradona and company, but normal service was quickly resumed as Greece failed to get near the Argentinian goal for the remainder of the game. On 68 minutes Messi was once again denied, as his long range free kick was well saved by Tzorvas. Argentina were dominating possession, indeed they would finish the game with an incredible 81%, yet there simply seemed no way past Greece’s nine man defence.
However, the deadlock was finally broken on 77 minutes when substitute Angel Di Maria’s corner was turned into the net by Demichelis. There was certainly an element of fortune involved, as Demicheli’s original header struck Diego Milito, but fell kindly allowing the Bayern defender to lash the ball home. It is interesting to note that for all their slick passing football, this was the fourth set piece goal Argentina have scored in the competition. Finally breached, the Greek defensive wall was beginning to crack and Messi was desperately unlucky not to double La Selección’s lead, striking the post after a fabulous run.
However, a second goal did arrive with just two minutes remaining. After yet another Messi effort was saved by Tvorsas, 36 year old substitute Martin Palermo was on hand to convert the rebound and put the result beyond doubt. It was a fantastic moment for the veteran striker, who despite scoring the goal which essentially allowed Argentina to qualify, has had his place in the squad severely criticised. Overall it was a thoroughly deserved victory not just for Argentina but for positive football as a whole. Few neutrals will be sad to see the back of negative Greece and now the world can look forward the clash with Mexico which should be anything but.
Palermo and Maradona share an embrace
Romero: 6– Yet another quiet evening for the keeper, but he did nothing wrong when called upon.
Otamendi: 6.5– Looked assured on his World Cup debut, but was never overly tested
Demichelis: 6.5– Once again looked like a liability as Samaras seemed to have the beating of him. However the Bayern man redeemed himself by smashing home the opening goal.
Burdisso: 6.5– A relaxing evening for the centre back, who had very little to do all game.
Rodriguez: 7– A fine performance from the diminutive fullback, effectively operated as a left winger and the majority of Argentina’s most threatening moves involved him. Man of the match.
Veron: 6– The veteran failed to hit the heights of the opening game and struggled to unlock the stubborn Greek defence, but did come close with a long range effort.
Bolatti: 6– An effective but unspectacular performance from Mascherano’s deputy, recycled possession well without creating many serious openings.
M. Rodriguez: 6– Other then one shot on goal it was a quiet performance from the Liverpool man, who also struggled to find a way through the Greek wall.
Messi: 6.5– A difficult evening for the little maestro, was shadowed doggedly by Papastathoppulos and repeatedly fouled. That said he still managed to draw four fantastic saves from Tvorsas and hit the wood work. A goal will surely come soon.
Aguero: 6– One good run and shot aside, Maradona’s son in law could do little to find a way through Greece’s defence.
Milito: 5.5– A frustrating night for the Inter striker who barley touched the ball, this was in no small part down to Greece’s negative approach but he would still have liked to have been more involved. Did play an unintentional part in the first goal though.
Di Maria: 6.5– Showed his ability at set pieces by picking out Demichelis for the opening goal.
Pastore: 6– A few nice touches and passes in what was just his second international appearance.
Palermo: 7– A fairytale story for the 36 year old, his well taken goal goes along way to justifying his selection.