Argentina progressed to the Round of 16 with victory over Greece, topping Group B after a patient display. Late goals from Martin Demichelis and Martin Palermo were enough to earn Argentina their third straight win and to condemn the Greeks to an early World Cup exit.
The Argentines lacked any real urgency but were the only side to come close to breaking the deadlock in the first half. After a slow opening to the game, Argentina began to test Alexandros Tzorvas in the Greek goal. After 18 minutes, Sergio Aguero turned and ran at the defence but saw his shot pushed away by Tzorvas. Moments later, Juan Veron fired from 35 yards and Tzorvas had to tip it over the bar. Soon after, Veron drilled a low cross through a crowded area but Mario Bolatti could only flick it wide. After 32 minutes, Loukas Vyntra had to block Aguero’s goalbound effort after Tzorvas made a mess of pushing out Diego Milito’s low cross. Tzorvas dealt somewhat better with two shots in quick succession just before half-time. First, Maxi Rodriguez hit a snapshot from 15 yards which Tzorvas did well to parry before Lionel Messi curled from the edge of the area and the keeper helped it over.
Georgios Samaras had a rare effort at goal for Greece early in the second half, firing across goal and just wide after his first shot was blocked. Clemente Rodriguez fired just wide of the post after cutting in on his right foot, before Bolatti shot viciously into Tzorvas’ midriff from close range after Demichelis flicked on a corner. Despite all the attacking talent in Argentina’s team, it was defender Demichelis who made the breakthrough. His header from a corner in the 77th minute hit his own teammate Milito but he lashed home the rebound. Messi came close to a second goal with five minutes left, bursting into the box and lashing a shot that came back off the post. It was two with a minute left, Tzorvas pushing Messi’s shot into the path of Palermo who slotted home.
Apart from punching away a Georgios Karagounis free-kick after 43 minutes, Argentine keeper Sergio Romero was as inactive during the first half as a French player at a Sunday afternoon training session. Apart from to prevent shots at an open goal from the half way line, there was little point in Argentina even fielding a goalkeeper, such was the negativity of the Greek approach. To the credit of Samaras, playing as a lone striker, he put in a hard working shift of running but had virtually nothing to feed off and no support. It was not until after the interval that Samaras even had a sight of goal. Despite tormenting and causing problems for Demichelis, he was starved of the ball in dangerous areas and had a massive task to try and manufacture chances for himself.
With progression to the Round of 16 almost certain, Diego Maradona opted to ring the changes, with only four of the players he selected for their opening game with Nigeria starting against Greece. Although it was a touch premature considering they could still mathematically go out, there was little risk considering the quality of players that had been waiting in the wings. In came Aguero and Milito, a strike force comprising one of the most sought after players around and the scorer of two goals in Inter Milan’s Champions League win. Nicolas Otamendi came in at right-back, a more natural defender than Jonas Gutierrez had proved in the position. At left-back, Clemente Rodriguez came in for Gabriel Heinze and put in a superb shift, one of the highlights of a forgettable match. If there is a concern for the games ahead for Maradona, it will be the disappointing defensive performances of Demichelis so far, the centre-back looking decidedly shaky despite hardly being overworked.
Messi was one of the few first choice players selected by Maradona but he was unable to get into the game until late on. Sokratis Papastathopoulos was not so much marking him as stalking him, denying him space and time continuously. Wherever Messi went, Papastathopoulos followed, and all the little Argentine magician could do was to drag him around into wide areas to free up space for teammates. The Greek’s job was made somewhat easier by escaping without what looked an obvious yellow card when he tripped Messi after 22 minutes. The irony was not lost on Argentina when Bolatti was booked 15 minutes from the end for blocking Papastathopoulos. It was only in the last five minutes that Messi began to show his true colours, and the second Argentine goal promptly arrived.
Argentina now face a repeat of their 2006 World Cup Round of 16 match against Mexico on Sunday. Having been taken to extra time by the Mexicans four years ago, Maradona will be aware of the threat that they can offer, but he has enough talent at his disposal to feel confident of victory. In that game in Leipzig, a Maxi Rodriguez stunner was enough to take them through eventually, and Maradona knows that he had plenty of players in his squad capable of making the difference in Johannesburg. For Greece, there is only the prospect of a plane back home, and there will be few neutrals shedding a tear tonight after their negative football.