Crunch time for Maradona’s Argentina

It is all too easy to point the finger at Diego Maradona for Argentina’s shortcomings in attempting to qualify for next summer’s World Cup. With one game remaining, away to Uruguay, the Albicelestes are in a precarious position. The game is effectively a play-off, for the winners will take the all-important fourth automatic qualification spot. However, if Maradona’s men manage just a draw they will still qualify, unless Ecuador beat Chile by five clear goals. Argentina has only failed to qualify for the World Cup once, in 1970, and the thought of the two-time winners not making it to South Africa is simply unimaginable.

Argentina possesses a wealth of talent, which includes players such as Lionel Messi – who is currently considered one of the best in the world – as well as Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero. Qualification has historically been a fairly easy task for Argentina, however it has not quite worked out this time with their god-like hero in charge. Going into the game with Uruguay, the statistics do not look favourable for Maradona. Argentina have won only one of their away games so far this qualification round, away to Venezuela, and have lost their last four on the road (for three of which Maradona was in charge). In comparison, Uruguay has only lost one game at home, to top of the table Brazil.

With Argentina struggling to qualify for the World Cup, many have questioned whether Maradona has what it takes to manage the national team. Undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest player to grace a football pitch, many argue that he is not experienced enough to hold such a position, with his tactics and team selections coming under fierce criticism. Against Peru, Maradona’s starting line-up bewildered many. He chose not to select Aguero or Tevez in his XI, and both stars didn’t even make it onto the pitch. And then, after a stop-start first half, he decided to change things by bringing on the 35-year-old Martin Palermo, who hasn’t played for the national side in 10 years since missing three penalties in one game against Colombia in 1999. The selection of Palermo, who turns 36 next month, was a peculiar one and it is interesting to point out that he plays for Boca, Maradona’s old and still much loved team. Maradona has been criticised for needlessly changing things, especially at half-time, and this proved to be another one of those occasions. By bringing on Palermo, Maradona tore apart the structure of his side. In the second half Peru’s midfield outnumbered Argentina’s by five players to three, and the change in formation – after the introduction of Palermo – meant that Peru’s most dangerous player, Juan Manuel Vargas, on the left of midfield, had ample space to manoeuvre and cause problems.

Soon after taking the lead, Maradona withdrew the goal-scorer, Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain, for Martin Demichelis, who came on as an emergency right-back, thus weakening his attack without ultimately doing much to shore up the defence. With Pablo Zabaleta injured, the Argentina Coach does not have a natural right-back to chose from, which is why he had to use Demichelis against Peru, and has used Jonas Guitierrez, a left-winger, in previous matches. He refuses to call up ex-captain Javier Zanetti to the squad, and has also given a second cap to 36-year-old defender Rolando Schiavi. He gave Emiliano Insua, the young Liverpool left-back, his international debut, playing him on the on the left side of a three-man defence – a position he has rarely, if not never, played at the top level. Insua is a promising talent but, despite having much to give going forward, many have questioned his defensive capabilities.

It is easy with hindsight to say Maradona would have done better to stick with the same side for the second half, as the changes in personnel and formation brought nervousness and a lack of fluidity to the side. Argentina clearly miss Riquelme, who, despite his old age, was and still is a master of keeping the ball and linking play together. However, the playmaker’s retirement from international football coincided with Maradona’s appointment as Coach. Nevertheless, his side did win the match, and the ageing player he brought on did score the last-gasp winning goal so maybe the fledgling boss should be given some amount of credit. However, with such bizarre squad selection inconsistencies, it is clear to see that Maradona does not know what his best team is, and as a result is unsure of what formation to start with. Perhaps he has too much attacking talent to choose from and not enough in the defensive department. If Argentina do manage to qualify for the World Cup, they will still be seen as one of the favourites to win it, but it is clear that things need to be changed if they are to stand any chance in South Africa.

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