Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast were denied a deserved draw in a pulsating World Cup encounter with Argentina.
Under the admiring gaze of the greatest player they have ever produced, Diego
Maradona, Argentina seemed set to coast home after Hernan Crespo and Javier
Saviola profited from the excellent work of Juan Roman Riquelme to give the
South Americans a two-goal lead at the break.
The interval scoreline was harsh on the Ivorians, who sped about the pitch
like lightning bolts and created a series of half chances, all of which went
But, just as the life was starting to ebb from their legs, Drogba turned home
an Arthur Boka cut-back eight minutes from time and from that moment on,
Argentina were the ones hanging on.
In the end though, from his position in the VIP seats, Maradona was able to
raise his arms in triumph, although the manner of victory will probably have not
done much for his blood pressure.
When the man who almost single-handedly won Argentina the World Cup in 1986
took his place in a capacity crowd, just as the teams were emerging onto the AOL
Arena, the photographers did not know where to look.
It did not take them long to train their lenses on the pitch though as the
two-time winners emphasised their intent to ensure there is a dual South
American challenge to Europe in Germany this summer.
After their disastrous group stage exit four years ago, Argentina are in no
mood to book an early flight home this time, even though they have been dumped
in the hardest group of all, with Serbia and Montenegro and Holland also lying
And, with wonderboy Lionel Messi waiting in the wings to make his entrance,
there is enough quality in the ranks to suggests the faith of their fanatical
supporters may not be misplaced.
But the Ivory Coast can look back on their World Cup bow with equal
With a bit more ruthlessness in front of goal, they could easily have snatched
a share of the spoils and, while defeat will do little for their chances of
advancing to the last 16, with a bit more improvement, a place in the knock-out
stage is not beyond them.
On the evidence of the past two years, including a run to the final of this
season's African Nations Cup, there is little doubt the Ivorians are their
continent's finest export to Germany this summer.
Those claims could easily be backed up on their display in the first 45
Mixing skill with industry and an eye for an opportunity, they had Argentina
at full stretch for long periods.
If it had not been for Roberto Ayala, they would have created far more than
the single clear-cut chance Kader Keita spurned when Drogba set him up with an
expertly guided header.
Unfortunately for Keita, his diving header stuck between the legs of
Argentinian goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri and with it went his country's
hopes of causing a shock.
After making startling progress for over two decades now, even at the rarefied
level of elite international combat, there is little the African nations lack.
What they do miss though, is the clinical nature of the old order.
While their opponents had plenty of the play and threatened at regular
intervals, when Argentina clicked into gear, they made it count.
Juan Roman Riquelme remains of interest to Sir Alex Ferguson despite
Manchester United's £10million bid for Michael Carrick and it is pretty obvious
From a position virtually identical to the one from which David Beckham
delivered the free-kick which brought England victory over Paraguay in Frankfurt
a few hours earlier, Riquelme drifted over a similar set-piece.
Drogba went for it with Gabriel Heinze, neither made clean contact and when
the ball dropped, Crespo expertly finished.
With Yaya Toure excelling, the Ivorians responded with admirable attacking
quality. But, within four minutes of Keita's miss, Riquelme delved into his box
of magic tricks again, fed Javier Saviola with a delightful through-ball and the
little Sevilla man slid a precise shot under Jean-Jacques Tizie.
The half-time score was an injustice. However, having got it, Argentina were
in no mood to throw it away.
Content to play on the break, with the excellent Riquelme pulling the strings,
they succeeded in quelling the Ivorians' fire, albeit at the expense of a
booking for Gabriel Heinze, who was involved in an almost constant running feud
The Chelsea man remained his country's most potent weapon throughout and got
the goal he deserved when he finished off Boka's cross.
Despite a lung-busting finale, the Africans could manage no more.