|ESPNsoccernet: World Cup|
BUENOS AIRES, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Their key players are injured, the coach appears unable to settle on his team and they have only one more match to play before the 2006 World Cup.Time is running out for Argentina as they attempt to bury the unhappy memories of their first-round elimination in the 2002 Japan/South Korea tournament. Argentina qualified for Germany in style with a 3-1 win over arch-rivals Brazil in Buenos Aires back in June with three matches to spare. Since then, however, little has gone right for the South Americans, who last won the World Cup 20 years ago with a team which depended heavily on Diego Maradona. Argentina had only three weeks to savour their win against Brazil before they were swept aside 4-1 by the same opponents in the Confederations Cup final in Germany. That was followed by a 1-0 defeat in Paraguay in a World Cup qualifier in September and a demoralising 3-2 defeat to England in a friendly in November. It got worse in December at the World Cup draw in Leipzig where they were placed with Ivory Coast, Netherlands and Serbia & Montenegro in the group regarded as the toughest. Coach Jose Pekerman, however, was not there to witness the moment when Pele, Argentina's old foe, drew the Netherlands in their group. STAYS HOME He had controversially decided to stay at home because he was recovering from an operation on a broken hand - the only one of the 32 coaches not to attend the ceremony. 'It wouldn't have changed anything if I had gone because it's a public relations matter,' said Pekerman at the time. Since then, injuries have been building up. Defender Gabriel Heinze, a key player under both Pekerman and predecessor Marcelo Bielsa, is the most worrying case after he sustained cruciate knee ligament damage during a Champions League game with Manchester United in September. In December, United manager Alex Ferguson said he could not see Heinze making the World Cup finals in June. Other players on the injured list include defender Roberto Ayala, midfielder Javier Mascherano and captain Juan Pablo Sorin. Mascherano, who joined Brazilian champions Corinthians in July, played only seven games for his new club before doctors detected a stress fracture in his left foot which needed surgery. He is due to return to action this month. Ayala, who missed the 2002 World Cup through injury, is likely to be out of action until March after surgery on his right knee. OTHER EXTREME Even before so many injuries, there was increasing confusion over Pekerman's first-choice 11. Bielsa was criticised for not giving enough chances to locally-based players. Pekerman appears to have gone to the other extreme, fielding more than 50 players since he took over in October 2004. Several have been given only one match or even a brief substitute's appearance to show what they can do. In the midst of all the chopping and changing, most Argentines now struggle to name the first-choice team. Goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri appears to be one certainty while Hernan Crespo looks set to lead the attack in a team built around playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme. One player who has not figured at all is Juan Sebastian Veron, who has yet to be picked by Pekerman. Despite rumours that Veron has fallen out with captain Sorin, Pekerman has repeatedly denied that there are anything other than footballing reasons behind his decision. 'Up to now, there is a squad which has responded (to my wishes),' he said in a recent interview. 'There's nothing personal against Veron, it's a footballing matter... Sincerely, if I had detected anything negative in the squad, I wouldn't have been so relaxed.' Perhaps the biggest worry is the lack of warm-up games. 'There's six months to go before the World Cup but we're only going to play one friendly,' said Pekerman, referring to the March 1 match against Croatia in Geneva. 'In other words, the state in which the players get there will depend on what they do with their clubs.'