Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Palermo cements his hero status
"Go and kill the match off." Those, according to Diego Maradona, were his words to Martin Palermo when he sent the Boca Juniors veteran onto the pitch against Greece on Tuesday late in the game. Argentina already led thanks to Martin Demichelis's goal, but it was Palermo, who to Argentine fans feels almost as ancient as the Parthenon, who was assigned the job of finishing the Greeks off.
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On the day that Lionel Messi became the youngest player ever to captain Argentina at a World Cup (two days short of his 23rd birthday) there was irony in the fact that that the oldest member of Argentina's squad poached a goal from him in classic style, reacting quickly to finish well after the Greek goalkeeper Alexandros Tzorvas had pushed a shot from captain Messi out towards him. Messi is getting more popular in Argentina by the day with his brilliant performances in this World Cup (there's sympathy that he still has yet to score), but Palermo went beyond popularity here a long time ago, and away into the realms of legend.
When the TV cameras showed Palermo waiting on the sidelines as Diego Milito started jogging off the field, the noise in the Buenos Aires park, where I watched the game, rose to a frankly uncomfortable level. When he scored, I spent a few seconds wondering whether the world was going to end, such was the chaos all around me. People here realise Palermo isn't the most technically gifted or blessed with pace (in fact he's almost glacially slow). They'll even admit he's past his best. But oddly, an awful lot of people will argue very strongly that they really believe he deserves to be in South Africa.
I like Martin Palermo, even though I'm no fan of Boca Juniors. I love his attitude and the almost pathological will to score that he embodies. But I don't agree that his goal means he deserves to be plastered on the front pages of all Wednesday's sport supplements. He will be, however, even though a number of other players put in far more sustained impressive performances over the match, and Messi once again shone. Has ever a forward deserved to score quite as much in a World Cup group stage without doing so?
Against Greece, Messi was man-marked as his manager was in World Cups of yore. Of course, Sokratis Papastathopoulos's attentions won't live as long in the memory as Claudio Gentile's treatment of Maradona in 1982, but there were moments in the first half when the Greek midfielder looked like he was about get a yellow card, only to be let off again. Messi was clearly unsettled by the experience at first, but he kept the ball moving well and towards the end of the half he wriggled free and fired in a dipping effort which forced a save from Tzorvas.
If Messi did a decent job under difficult circumstances, Argentina otherwise showed a great deal of patience and resolve to eventually break down the Greek defence, aided by the knowledge that they didn't even need to do so in order to top the group. It was largely a second string line-up; only Messi, Maxi Rodriguez, Seba Veron, Martin Demichelis and Sergio Romero had started either of the first two games, but all the same the team showed good understanding to eventually overcome Otto Rehhagel's men.
Veron in particular was superb in midfield, in stark contrast to his performance against Nigeria. One statistic after the game was especially memorable: La Brujita made 135 successful passes from 158 attempts. The entire Greece side put together managed 136 successful passes, from 209 attempts. Nicolas Otamendi put in a competent performance at right back - not bad considering he, like Jonas Gutierrez before him, isn't one - and on the other side of defence Clemente Rodriguez was superb getting forward.
Actually Clemente was one of the players I was most impressed with. He's been great for Estudiantes de La Plata for a while, but for Argentina having a natural full back in at least one of those positions made such a difference. He didn't have anything to do defensively, because Greece didn't attack down the flanks, but getting forward he was a constant danger, and when Angel Di Maria came on Clemente proved himself considerably more two-footed than the Benfica wide man stationed in front of him.
Demichelis had a more mixed game at centre half, superb in the first half but decidedly less so in the second, when on a couple of occasions he allowed Georgios Samaras to get the better of him. In spite of his goal, given his previous errors, if I were Diego Maradona I'd be giving some thought to playing Nicolas Burdisso alongside Walter Samuel when the latter comes back from his thigh strain for the second round against Mexico.
Even Mario Bolatti, who's struggled for the past season to get a game for Fiorentina's reserves, was tidy enough, breaking up play when Greece did try to get it through the midfield (which admittedly wasn't often) and distributing the ball very well when Argentina had it (which was far more). I'm still not sure I'd trust him if he had to come on for Javier Mascherano against stronger opposition further into the tournament, but judging him solely on what we saw on Tuesday, it wasn't a bad performance.
Messi, again, was superb, even in his quietest match so far. Hitting the post in the second half - for the second time in this World Cup - served as a reminder that he surely can't go long without scoring. With him in this form, Argentina don't even need him to score, just as long as the rest of the team are doing so, and when even Palermo - possibly the only player in the tournament slower than Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco - can manage it, you start to suspect Maradona really might have a direct line to Him Upstairs...