Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Javier Zanetti, Javier Mascherano, Gabriel Heinze and Maxi Rodriguez. This is just part of the wealth of talent that the Argentina National team have at their disposal. Nevertheless the Argies, who haven’t won the World Cup since 1986, are making qualification difficult for themselves under the recently appointed manager, Diego Maradona. Maradona (below) replaced Alfio Basile midway through the campaign after various disappointing results including defeats to Chile and Columbia whilst disappointing draws to Peru and Ecuador were deemed failures by the majority in Argentina.
Argentina began their South American Qualifying campaign back in 2007 with a home match against Chile, now managed by former Argentina manager Marcelo Bielsa. A relatively convincing performance in the first half saw midfield playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, who has recently required from international football, grab two goals to put his country in a commanding position at half time. The sending off of Chilian Christian Alvarez made the second half a comfortable affair which never saw the Argies get out of second gear. Argentina maintained their 100% record for two more matches which saw a comfortable 2-0 win away to Venezuela and a routine 3-0 home victory against Bolivia.
However, the first cracks of the qualifying campaign were evident to be seen as Argentina blew a 1-0 half time lead to end up losing 2-1 away to Columbia as Carlos Tevez was sent off. This was followed up with an unconvincing display at home to Ecuador as Argentina needed a 93rd minute goal by Boca Juniors striker Rodrigo Palacio to snatch a 1-1 draw. Although this was followed up with a very good 0-0 draw away to Brazil, Argentina had failed to win in three games and their promising early position was starting to look precarious.
Even though Argentina were only up to match 7 of 18, the next match against the unpredictable Paraguay had the feel of a big clash about it. The Paraguayans had already managed to comprehensively beat Brazil 2-0 at home yet crashed 4-2 to second bottom side Bolivia just three days later. Even so, it was clear that Paraguay were going to be a very dangerous outfit for Alfio Basile’s team. The encounter lived up to it’s pre match billing as Gabriel Heinze put through his own net after 13 minutes whilst Tevez was sent off for the 2nd time in three internationals after two violent tackles. Fortunately, Sergio Aguero rescued a draw for Argentina in the second half although it failed to disguise another below par performance.
However, Argentina’s form was quickly becoming a concern. Three days later they visited rock bottom Peru who were in awful form along with off the field scandal. Argentina struggled to get going and thought they had grabbed the three points as Esteban Cambiasso scored in the 82nd minute. However, in the 93rd minute, Peru stunned the star studded outfit with an equaliser that put even more pressure on manager Basile.
With a country expecting better, Basile’s job was on the line during the home encounter against Uruguay. His team gave him a stay of execution as early goals from Messi and Aguero proved just about enough as Argentina finally claimed three points after five games without a win. However, enough was enough as Argentina quickly reverted to their previous ways with a lacklusture 1-0 away defeat to qualifying surprise package Chile. This was a result that caused manager Alfio Basile to resign as head coach of the Argentina national team with immediate effect. It was clear what the player’s thought of Basile’s decision after this quote from Lionel Messi.
“Argentina haven’t played well for a while and the results haven’t been good. We needed a change.”
Nevertheless, what followed next was something not many football supporters globally could have predicted. Diego Maradona, a football icon, a man well documented in recent years for his personal problems was chosen as the man to get Argentina’s qualification campaign back on track. The man who’s well known for his “hand of god” goal during the 1986 World Cup didn’t have the smoothest of transitions to the managers chair though. He threatened to quit the side after only two weeks after the Argentina Association refused to let him have his chosen assistant. Soon after, playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme retired from international football following a falling out with Maradona.
Maradona’s reign began with what seemed a routine fixture on paper at home to Venezuela. However, the away side were no longer the pushovers of years gone by following some impressive qualification results in recent times. Nevertheless, as expected, Maradona had the instant reaction as Argentina cruised to a 4-0 victory playing some exquisite football at times.
The new manager’s next fixture would provide him with a much sterner test though. The side were to travel to Bolivia, a trip that is viewed as a great challenge due to the high altitude that the matches are played at. Even so, with Maradona at the helm, many supporters were confident of their team coming away with the three points. Unfortunately, Argentina were humiliated 6-1 at the hands of the Bolivians. With the score poised at 1-1 midway through the first half, Bolivia took the lead in the 34th minute and extended it even further on the stroke of half time to leave the Argies with quite literally an uphill task in the second half. Things went from bad to worse as Angel Di Maria was sent off for Argentina in the 64th minute with the score at 4-1. Bolivia completed the rout to signal Maradona’s honeymoon period as manager well and truly over.
The result leaves Argentina currently 4th in the overall standings and only two points ahead of 5th place Uruguay. With only six games remaining and only the top four guaranteed to reach the World Cup, Argentina have some work to do before they can book their ticket to South Africa.
WILL THEY MAKE IT?
With the depth of talent at their disposal, Argentina realistically should make the top four in the South American qualifers. Nevertheless, various pundits and supporters have criticised Argentina in recent times for being able to play the beautiful football but lacking the backbone to be successful. For a large part of Basile’s reign, the previous manager had to make do without tough tackling midfielders Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago. With exception to the Bolivia disaster, the two midfielders tend to make a difference when they’re available for their national team. Another factor which may work in their favour is the retirement of flamboyent yet inconsistent playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. Previous managers have tended to base their entire team around “the little genius” which although produces attractive football, can sometimes drag the team down when Riquelme is not on form.
What is clear is that if Argentina fail to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, South Africa will be absent of some of the best players in world football!