Thursday, October 15, 2009
Unfathomable Diego defies the critics
Scary thought for England fans... Argentina to win the World Cup! No, not possible, I can hear you say. Argentina to win the World Cup? What a laugh with that joker Diego Maradona in charge.
• Bolatti delivers for Diego
• Maradona rounds on critics
Well, remember when Luiz Felipe Scolari took over a similarly fragile and bedraggled Brazil when they looked in a difficult position to qualify from the South American group? Big Phil built his big reputation by galvanising Brazil to scrape through qualification and went on to win the World Cup.
Diego Maradona's team selections might be crazy; he might be mad. But he is a winner. As a player, and now as a manager. And, no one thought he would cut it as a manager. Perhaps he hasn't quite yet, but to get through to the World Cup when the world eagerly awaited his demise took some doing.
Argentina booked their place in South Africa with a 1-0 win over Uruguay in Montevideo, a result that reminded me of the way Glenn Hoddle guided England to a memorable draw in Italy to take England through to the finals. Who would have thought Maradona, whose methods are impossible to fathom, would ever be compared to Hoddle, who is an expert in tactics and strategy.
Those who stayed up to watch the game were not treated to a feast of scintillating football. More a kicking match, where only one red card was a let off for the referee.
After Maradona's Jurgen Klinsmann-esque bell dive celebrations with that last gasp injury time win over Peru, this time, as Argentina celebrated their seemingly impossible quest for qualification in their neighbours' back yard, Diego was encased by a swarm of his entourage in one of the longest celebrations of all time. At least that was worth watching.
Yet again, though, Maradona came up with the most unlikely scenario.
Substitute Mario Bolatti hit a late winner to end Uruguay's hopes of snatching automatic qualification for South Africa. Huracan midfielder Bolatti was winning just his third cap. One of Maradona's aberrations, everyone thought. No one focused on this one, particularly because there were so many.
Bolatti fired home with six minutes remaining after the home defence failed to deal with Juan Sebastian Veron's drilled effort from a free-kick. Yes, the same Veron who was such a flop at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, who returned to Argentina some time ago to see out the few remaining years of his long career.
Wouldn't it be poetic justice if Veron came back to haunt England?
Uruguay ended the night with ten men after Martin Caceres picked up a second yellow card in the build up to Argentina's winner. But in the TV studio before kick off, Ossie Ardiles, Gus Poyet and Trevor Francis were predicting that there would be three red cards.
Francis was convinced: "Argentina to lose". Ardiles was a bag of nerves, hoping for the best: a draw. Poyet sat there with a smug grin, sure it was going to be his country's night. How wrong they all were. The UK national newspapers sent their journalists to write about Maradona's demise, and came away with the wrong result for their headline writers.
Maradona came in for fierce criticism for his bizarre handling of Argentina's qualification campaign, which has seen him field over 70 players, but victory in Montevideo won't silence his critics, but it will keep them a little quieter for now.
But nothing is simple with Diego. Ardiles was telling me that not even qualification would guarantee his presence in South Africa, as politics behind the scenes was at work to unseat him.
A lot will depend on Maradona's state of mind, not just now, but in the coming months. Any little thing to upset him could lead to a mental break down!
But there is little doubt that Argentina have some of the world's best players, and Maradona's task is to weld them into a team.
Lionel Messi had been a shadow of the player who is supposed to be the world's best. But he is going to the finals, and there, the world might see the true beauty of his skills.
Messi started the move that resulted in the winner, shifting the ball left for Veron to take a shot from long range which ricocheted in the area before falling to Bolatti, who brought the ball under control before slotting home to book Argentina's passage to the finals.
No doubt we are all heading toward yet another England-Argentina epic along the way.