Thursday, June 17, 2010
Argentina slip into top gear
John Brewin, Soccer City, Johannesburg
Being first among equals is the least of what is expected of Lionel Messi. Just a glance at the marked area in front of the Argentina bench will tell him that. There, strutting, gesticulating, grimacing and bellowing is the man he must emulate. In Diego Maradona, he can either find guidance or wilt in the light of his coach's achievements of 24 years ago. It is the highest of standards to aspire to.
• Argentina 4-1 South Korea
• Blog: Higuain on fire
Back in 1986, Maradona had a rugged tactician in Carlos Bilardo to set up a team to grant his star quality the best platform. Though Bilardo still lurks in the backroom shadows, Messi must look to a national coach on whom the jury remains out and who just happens to be the man from whose shadow he must step out. In Mexico, Bilardo and indeed Maradona the player wrung career-best performances from largely forgotten men like Jose Luis Brown, Hector Enrique and Julio Olarticochea, players who were all playing their football in the Argentine leagues at the time of their assault on the Mundial.
Maradona meanwhile, despite the selection of a smattering of Argentina-based players in his 23-man squad, and having been denied the services of the injured Juan Sebastian Veron, relied on an all-European based starting XI to blow away the South Koreans with the tournament's finest attacking play yet. The smiling coach later said he was beginning to feel the "good vibrations."
"The Koreans were never capable of stopping us. Argentina did what they wanted," he proclaimed after embracing almost every member of his staff though he later defensively denied any other motives for his passion when speaking of how "I prefer women. I am dating Veronica, she is 31, and blonde and beautiful. It's just a matter of affection for an open and frank group of players."
All, now Jonas Gutierrez has been promoted with Newcastle, play their football among the elites of Europe, a very different story to Maradona's heyday and though he says the players back then were not of the same standard he spoke of the difficulty of gelling a group of whom "90% play in Europe". "It is difficult to blend them into a team," he said. "It takes a while to bring them into the same mould."
The émigré with the greatest question mark against his name is none other Messi, against whom accusations of not performing for a country he left when he was barely a teenager have been repeatedly levelled. In the opener against Nigeria he had staged a passable impression of his Barcelona self only to be let down by profligate finishing.
At Soccer City, he again finished goalless but at least played a full part in the Koreans' destruction. Messi was heavily congratulated for his part in the opening goal though the absent-minded hack of Park Chu-Young was far more responsible than any helping of magic. The maestro was to be found drifting and constantly looking for action, yet not quite able to influence matters in the manner of his Barcelona best; he often found himself playing second fiddle to an all-action performance from Carlos Tevez. Meanwhile, fellow forward Gonzalo Higuain also helped himself amid chaotic Korean defending to score what looked an easy hat-trick, his first a free header.
While an individualist of the highest order, Messi is a team man, and clearly popular with colleagues. He may lack the visceral personality of his predecessor and must thus inspire with his actions. However, what he cannot do is teach team-mates to defend. Martin Demichelis' error to supply Lee Chung Yong's goal before the break rather revealed that Messi's support group, for all its Euro riches, can be flawed. A previously lacklustre Korean team consequently drew confidence from their gift and should have had an equaliser on the hour when Yeom Ki-Hun blazed wide when the Argentine defence, denied Walter Samuel by a first-half injury, was cut wide open.
By then, Maradona had shown signs of being frustrated, not least by his age and his inability to still be playing in a World Cup. At one point he almost forgot himself. Always encroached at the edge of his technical area, a loose ball found its way to his feet. For a second, he clearly considered juggling it before then remembering where he was and why he was here. A meek tap back to the touchline followed. Not for him the detached pragmatism of the likes of Bilardo. In his mind he lives, breathes, heads and kicks every ball. Such was his fervour and nervous energy that he became embroiled in a heated touchline exchange with South Korean coach Huh Jung-Moo, who later dismissed Maradona's antics as "inappropriate" and said that "a coach should not direct comments at another coach".
No less passionate was Messi the apprentice who celebrated Argentina's third goal wildly after his shot off the post crashed into the path of Higuain, for whom the ball's drop was again fortuitous. Such a gesture indicated his desire to inspire and create a path to glory. And when Higuain notched a hat-trick in scoring the fourth with a gently lofted header, Messi still chased in the ball with the eagerness of a cocker spaniel.
His mentor looked on in admiration, perhaps his one regret being that he couldn't be doing the same. As he explained afterwards, nowadays his job is to "tell the players what the World Cup is all about".
"What we are living is a beautiful thing," he said.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Gonzalo Higuain. His general play may not have been up to the level of Carlos Tevez and Messi but grabbing three slickly-taken goals in a World Cup match signifies a man capable of being in the right place at the right time. Diego Milito, the scourge of European defenders all 2009-10 season, could only look on from the bench in admiration/resignation.
ARGENTINA VERDICT: They annexed the Germans for the status of best attacking football of the tournament so far with the quality of their inter-changing forward play. However, flaws at the back are still apparent and Demichelis' error revealed a soft underbelly. They started even better at Germany 2006 so caution may still be best advised when considering their chances. Nevertheless, a genuine pleasure to watch while it may last.
SOUTH KOREA VERDICT: After the promise of that Sunday defeat of Greece, this was a disaster for the Koreans. Their best moments resulted from Argentine errors and their defence could not handle the flair of their opponents. Coach Huh lamented Yeom's second-half miss but admitted his team had been outclassed.
LOVE LETTERS: Maradona tried his best to avert another battle with one of the game's big egos when he tried to diffuse a spat with Michel Platini. Showing off a letter purportedly from Platini that he explained as saying the Frenchman writing that he had "never said what you (the press) said he said about me," he chose to issue a returned apology to his fellow 80s legend through, yes, the press. Anyone follow that?