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May 13, 2010

Dunga and Diego are at it again

By Sam Kelly

Bizarre inclusions? Check. Big name exclusions? Check. Wringing of hands, tearing of clothes and gnashing of teeth (largely metaphorically)? Check. Señores y señoras, it's World Cup preliminary squad announcement time! And while there won't be many chairs thrown through windows in rage at the choices made by the managers of Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile, South America's two giants are grabbing the headlines. Well, what did you expect?

Diego Maradona
GettyImagesDiego Maradona: Talking the talk

Dunga showed his hand first, naming just 23 players in Brazil's preliminary squad, and following it later in the day with a seven-man reserve list, so that those in the 23 know they'll be on the way unless injury strikes. The immediate surprise with Brazil's squad is a paucity up front: Dunga has only named four forwards. That is compensated for by the fact that Julio Baptista can also play up front but has been listed as a midfielder. Even so, the squad relies largely on Robinho, Luis Fabiano of Sevilla, Wolfsburg's Grafite and the potential of Villarreal's Nilmar.

The banners were out on Wednesday night at the Maracana prior to Flamengo's Copa Libertadores quarter-final, first leg against Universidad de Chile, insisting that the home side's former Inter Milan striker Adriano should have got a call-up. His team-mate Vagner Love at least showed why he has dropped out of the reckoning, missing a sitter right before half-time, but Dunga was unequivocal: "Adriano's had a number of chances to prove himself [to me]," he told the press when his announcement was made. "We had to make a decision... at times, the head speaks louder than the heart."

Although they might be in trouble if injury befalls any of their forwards after the deadline for replacements, the squad does at least have a direction and a look about it that's familiar to anyone who's paid attention to Dunga's previous lists. A physical, mobile midfield which won't shy away from a tackle, a group of thoroughly solid defenders with flying wing backs, and Luis Fabiano set to act as main striker, adds up to the same look Brazil had throughout the group stages. They'll be very difficult to score against, and when they break on the counter it'll be done at lightning speed and the ball could well end up in the opposing net before the other team knows what's hit them. All the same, there's disappointment that Ronaldinho is only included on the standby list, amid fears of a lack of creativity in midfield.

The inclusion of Robinho will no doubt raise eyebrows in the blue half of Manchester but this is a player who, since his move home to Santos, has made no secret of his desire to kick on and get to South Africa, and who's been performing like a man reborn. Adriano's absence, by contrast, can scarcely be surprising - he's missed a number of club training sessions and is once again overweight and out of form.

No such worries over weight or form for the lucky man who gets to pick a team from Argentina's vast array of attacking talent, you'd think. Sadly for Argentines, the mental wellbeing of the manager might be more of a problem.

Diego Maradona's list was meant to be made public at 3pm on Tuesday, but eventually came out just after seven. When it did, there was no great shock at big names left out. That's because everyone's been long resigned to the fact that Maradona was never going to pick players like Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Lucho Gonzalez, Ever Banega, Gabriel Milito or Lisandro Lopez, who scored six seconds after coming on in his only Argentina cap under Maradona to date.

Maradona's squad of 30 is a bizarre mix of players he simply couldn't leave out - Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Walter Samuel, Javier Mascherano - and picks from the Argentine league ranging from the sentimental but long-forecast (Martin Palermo, the 37-year-old who recently became Boca Juniors' all-time top scorer and should not be anywhere near the squad) to the downright peculiar: Colon defender Ariel Garce and Argentinos Juniors midfielder Juan Mercier, for instance. There's a good team in there, but even that could be scuppered by Maradona's tactics.

Gabriel Milito
GettyImagesGabriel Milito has suffered severe injury problems in recent years

There had been talk among the press pack the evening before the squad list was announced that Zanetti and Barcelona's Milito would both feature - some see Milito as having an important role whether or not he plays, because he's great friends with Lionel Messi - but that didn't come to pass.

Among the other players not called up by Maradona was Lucas Barrios, the Dortmund striker who's been in white-hot form all season in the Bundesliga. His wait for an Argentina call-up was so long that when a Paraguayan lawyer gained him a second passport in his mother's homeland, he was happy to accept Gerardo Martino's call-up to the Paraguay squad. As such, he'll provide something of a replacement for Salvador Cabanas, the Club América forward who was shot in the head in Mexico City in January.

It's notable that in Paraguay, and also in Chile and Uruguay, there's been little argument over any of the squad lists - Marcelo Bielsa's Chile squad contained no surprises and continues the good work started in qualifying, whilst Oscar Tabarez's Uruguay squad is most controversial for his exclusion of Cristian Rodríguez - who saw red in the last qualifier against Argentina and thus would miss two of the group matches.

It's a mixed reaction to the continent's various squads then and, as ever, the two big boys are the ones causing the biggest fuss. For my money, in spite of their lack of flair I still think Brazil are favourites - there's little or no flair, but they're tough to score against and lethal on the counter attack.

Argentina... well, if nothing else, expectations won't be too high. Not with players like Zanetti and Cambiasso (key for the possible incoming European club champions) watching the World Cup like the rest of the world: from their sofas.