Ayala laments Argentina's substitutions

June 11, 2006

HAMBURG, June 11 (Reuters) - The presence of Gabriel Heinze in the heart of Argentina's defence helped the twice champions to hold off the challenge of Ivory Coast in World Cup Group C but the team's overall performance left room for improvement.

The pairing of Roberto Ayala, sorely missed in Japan four years ago when Argentina went out in the first round, and Heinze, returning to full fitness after a serious knee injury, made a big contribution to Saturday's 2-1 victory.

However, with tough group opponents to come in Serbia & Montenegro and Netherlands, coach Jose Pekerman may find he needs the latest 'new Maradona', Lionel Messi, for Argentina to stand a chance of winning a third title.

Debutants Ivory Coast would not have been flattered by a draw and their fast running and commitment in the tackle had Argentina on the back foot and thankful for the experience of Ayala and Heinze.

Pekerman needs to strengthen his ball-winning department in midfield, where Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso were well short of their best, for the game with Serbia & Montenegro in Gelsenkirchen on Friday.

Ayala said Argentina should have carried on attacking after goals from striker Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola gave them a 2-0 halftime lead.

'We paid for that because we withdrew and when they sent on a lot of forwards with substitutions they were going to have chances,' he said.

Argentina were left hanging on after Didier Drogba scored in the 82nd minute.

The team are still very much in the making but they are scoring goals that they found hard to come by four years ago.

Pekerman put the emphasis on a measured build-up to the tournament with limited match practice, seeking the freshness in his squad that was so obviously lacking in 2002.

Saturday's result will have at least partly vindicated his decision but Ivory Coast could have upset his plans with a strong midfield performance honed in a string of warm-ups against good opposition.

Argentina won Saturday's match because they made better use of the chances created by Juan Roman Riquelme, put away by Crespo and Saviola, and were let off by poor finishing by the African Nations Cup finalists.