Tevez scratches a 20-year itch
Another World Cup fixture between Argentina and Mexico, another belter of a goal from outside the box. Four years ago it was Maxi Rodriguez with that astonishing volley hit with his 'weaker' foot, this time round Carlos Tevez takes the accolade as well as the man of the match award. His wasn't the only positive to take from Argentina's performance: Nicolas Otamendi looked far more experienced at right back than he really is; Gonzalo Higuaín bagged another goal, and Lionel Messi still seems relaxed in spite of losing a bet with his manager. Tevez, though, was the stand-out performer, even if his first goal shouldn't have stood.
Questions will again be asked of FIFA's refusal to allow the use of video technology, after Tevez's opening goal was replayed on the screens in the stadium and both referee and linesman saw they shouldn't have given it but were unable, bound by the rules, to change their decision even though play hadn't restarted. All the same, Argentina were able to take advantage of Mexico's clearly shaken state in the aftermath of the goal when Higuaín nipped in to get a second for his team, and the performance overall showed a lot of quality.
Messi's bet with Maradona, by the way, was that he'd score in this match, which of course he didn't. Given the nature of the first goal, with Tevez practically pinching the goal from Messi (and subsequently lucky it didn't get chalked off) he could be forgiven for asking Tevez to cough up a share of the lost stake, but he seemed relaxed, joking with the press that, "I'm going to tell [Maradona] it's double or nothing in the next match." This wasn't his most stellar performance of the World Cup, but it's nice to see and hear him still relaxed in spite of what must be huge frustration at not yet having scored.
What Messi is doing still, is the simple things, very well. Previously when opposing sides tried crowding him out his team-mates seemed like they still expected him to beat the entire defence on his own, and he obviously wasn't happy. Now, he's got the support he needs to lay off quick linking passes and try and start runs with intelligent one-twos. The other result of this new-found sense of identity with the team, of course, is that if the ball can be transferred to Tevez quickly enough he's got more space to work his own magic in, because Messi is being so closely monitored. As Tevez demonstrated with his second goal on Sunday, he only needs to break free for a moment.
Messi's ongoing sense of identity within the group can only be good for Argentina now and in the future, and Tevez's opportunism at using the extra space it affords him is a fantastic bonus. Past demons have been put to bed too: this was the first knockout match Argentina had won in 90 minutes at a World Cup since the second round of Italia 90 against Brazil, twenty years and three days before. More qualified managers than Diego Maradona there may be, but it's a long time since anyone has made progress look quite this serene at the Argentine helm. Could it be that he really does have something when it comes to World Cups that others just can't match?
It's clear Maradona's enjoying the tournament and that his insistence on team-building over warmup matches has been justified. The freedom his team are playing with is unexpected to those who thought 1986 and 1990 manager Carlos Bilardo would be the main tactical influence, and that's the principle reason Argentina's progress so far has come as such a pleasant surprise to most people here.
To take an example, whilst Jose Pekerman's side four years ago were more balanced, they lost some momentum when the manager rested his entire first team for the dead rubber in the final group game with the Netherlands, a 0-0 draw. They didn't manage to regain the form that had seen them beat Serbia & Montenegro 6-0 in the second group game. By contrast, Maradona kept a sprinkling of first-teamers in for the final group match this year, giving the overall shape of the team some continuity, and that seemed to help this time. There were times when Mexico got close, but once Argentina grabbed the lead they never looked overly stretched.
Of course, it gets harder from here, and the quarter-final, where the team now finds themselves, is the stage most, including myself, thought they should reach (we just didn't expect them to do it so comfortably). Though Mexico had their moments, the defence still hasn't been put under sustained pressure - El Tri showed a tendency to shoot from outside the box - and when a quick ball was played in it was notable how Javier Hernandez turned Martin Demichelis, who's a lot bigger than him, before scoring. To my mind, Germany will test this area a lot more.
This is why Otamendi's performance at right back was heartening. The young Velez Sarsfield centre back, who'll likely be on his way to Milan after the tournament, is virtually untested as a full back, but against Greece he instantly looked more at home there than poor Jonas Gutierrez had in the first two group games, and he carried that good start through to the Mexico game. The defensive solidity in that area will probably mean Germany target the centre backs - specifically Demichelis - more than anything.
Although there's vulnerability, it's now notably less than at the start of the tournament, and the attack are firing well. The mood in Buenos Aires is that Germany will have to score several if they're to put Argentina out, because Maradona's side will get at least a couple of goals themselves. Whether they're really balanced enough to get revenge for the penalty defeat four years ago, only time will tell. But it should make for a good game finding out.