Maradona's men continue to entertain
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 24 years ago. It is the highest of standards to aspire to.
Back in 1986, Maradona had a rugged tactician in coach 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 more than two decades ago, Bilardo and indeed Maradona the player wrung career-best performances from largely forgotten men such as Jose Luis Brown, Hector Enrique and Julio Olarticoechea -- players who were all playing their football in the Argentine leagues at the time of their assault on the Mundial.
In 2010, Maradona the manager -- 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 11 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, saying: "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 of his 11 starters -- now that Jonas Gutierrez has been promoted with Newcastle -- play their football in the elite leagues of Europe, a very different story from Maradona's heyday as a player. And though the current manager says the players back then were not of the same standard, he spoke of the difficulty of jelling a group of whom "90 percent play in Europe. It is difficult to blend them into a team," he said. "It takes a while to bring them into the same mold."
The émigré with the greatest question mark against his name is none other than Messi, the La Liga star who has been accused of not performing well enough for a country he left when he was barely a teenager. 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. The maestro was constantly looking for action and was able to dribble into some dangerous areas. 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. 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.
Although an individualist of the highest order, Messi is a team man and is clearly popular with colleagues. He may lack the visceral personality of his predecessor, and thus he must inspire with his actions. However, what he cannot do is teach teammates 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 lackluster Korean team drew confidence from the gift and should have had an equalizer on the hour when Yeom Ki-Hun blazed wide after the Argentine defense -- denied Walter Samuel's services 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 play in a World Cup himself. 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 sideline 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 fervor and nervous energy that he became embroiled in a heated sideline exchange with South Korea 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, and perhaps his one regret was that he couldn't be doing the same. As he explained afterward, 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 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 throughout Inter Milan's 2009-10 season, could only look on from the bench in admiration and resignation.
ARGENTINA VERDICT: They annexed from the Germans the status of best attacking football of the tournament so far with the quality of their interchanging forward play. However, flaws at the back are still apparent, and Demichelis' error revealed a soft underbelly. They started even better in Germany in 2006, so caution may still be advised when considering the Albiceleste's chances. Nevertheless, it is a genuine pleasure to watch, however long 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 defense 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 defuse a spat with Michel Platini. Showing off a letter purportedly from Platini, Maradona explained that the Frenchman had written that he had "never said what [the press] said he said about me." The Argentine great then chose to issue a returned apology to his fellow 1980s legend through, yes, the press. Anyone follow that?
John Brewin is the senior editor of ESPNSoccernet in London.