Frankfurt is the venue for what promises to be the showcase match so far of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, as the already qualified Argentina and Holland meet to decide who wins Group C.
Both teams secured qualification for the second round with opening victories against Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro, making a mockery of the assertion that Group C would be the ‘group of death’. Both sides are unlikely to be at full strength but this rematch of the 1978 World Cup Final promises to be a mouth-watering contest, as two nations with traditional attacking ideals collide at the Commerzbank Arena.
Much to live up to
The praise for Argentina following their aesthetically-pleasing and fluid 6-0 drubbing of Serbia & Montenegro on Friday has been as relentless as it is effusive. Wigan Athletic manager Paul Jewell, working as pundit for BBC radio, described it as the best performance that he had ever seen live, and newspapers from all continents were united in their praise of the ‘Albicelestes’. Argentina’s second goal – finished by defensive midfielder Esteban Cambiasso after a 24-pass move – has been replayed on TV stations throughout the world, and has been hailed as the finest team goal ever scored at the World Cup Finals.
The Argentines therefore have much to live up. The odds of them winning the World Cup were drastically slashed in the aftermath of their extraordinary victory, and most bookmakers now make them joint favourites with Brazil to win the trophy for the third time. The one hope that fans of the other fancied nations are clinging to is that Argentina have peaked too early. The history of the World Cup is littered with teams who have impressed early on in the competition, only to fall short of winning the World Cup. The most memorable examples are Hungary in 1954, Brazil in 1982 and Argentina’s opponents this evening, Holland, in 1974.
It is a theory that is not lost on Argentina’s star striker Hernan Crespo, who has urged his team-mates to ignore the plaudits and focus on maintaining their enormously high standards.
“We put on a great performance on Friday and all of us are very proud to have been part of it,” Crespo said on Monday.
“The challenge now is for us to maintain it. We have not won anything yet, even our group, and so we must stay focussed. This hasn’t been particularly easy over the last few days but the manager is doing his best to keep us humble.”
Holland will pose a far different and potent threat to that provided by Serbia & Montenegro last week. The Dutch have an excellent record against Argentina and have only lost once in seven encounters. Their victories include a 4-0 win at the 1974 World Cup and a 2-1 win in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final. Argentina’s sole win, however, came in the most important meeting of all between the two sides – the 1978 World Cup Final, which Argentina won 3-1 in Buenos Aires.
Argentina coach Jose Pekerman, who has been part of Argentina’s youth or national teams for over ten years, is likely to make four changes to the starting eleven from the Serbia & Montenegro match. Luis Gonzalez has a groin strain and star playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme will be rested, having endured a long season with his Spanish club Villareal. Elsewhere, defender Gabriel Heinze and Crespo will probably start on the bench due to them being one yellow card away from suspension for the second phase.
Pekerman is likely to resist media pressure to include teenaged prodigy Lionel Messi from the start tonight. Messi is continuing his rehabilitation from a thigh injury and, despite his impressive goal-scoring cameo appearance as a substitute against Serbia & Montenegro, he is unlikely to be risked from the start with qualification already assured.
Midfielder Maxi Rodriguez, one of the more unsung heroes of Pekerman’s squad, is under no illusions as to the threat Holland will pose him and his team-mates this evening.
“Even though both teams are through I am sure it will be an exciting, end-to-end match,” he predicted on Tuesday.
“We know a lot about Holland and there is something of an historical rivalry between us. They are very competitive and have some big names, like Arjen Robben and Ruud van Nistelrooy, but there is more to Holland than just them. We’ll need to be on our guard.”
Flashes of verve
The Dutch have been less impressive in their opening victories, but have shown flashes of their traditional verve and flexibility against Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro. The bulk of their squad are young and inexperienced, and coach Marco van Basten will be hoping that they can grow as a unit over the next couple of weeks.
“There is more to come from us,” Chelsea winger Arjen Robben declared on Tuesday.
“We have to be satisfied with the way things have turned out so far. It is a relief that we don’t have to go into our final game in need of a result, though it would be nice to top the group. We have started well in both our games but have found it difficult to maintain the pressure for 90 minutes. Hopefully we can change this as the competition progresses.”
Van Basten is in agreement with his young winger, and is expecting his team to begin producing the type of football that he has pledged.
“We still have to improve our performances and the way we play,” the coach insisted on Tuesday.
“There is a lot to do before we actually play the kind of football we are striving for – attractive, attacking and spectacular football in the true Dutch tradition.
The coach confirmed that he will probably rest up to six of his normal first-choice players for this evening’s game. Gio van Bronkhorst, John Heitinga, Robben, Joris Mathijsen, Mark van Bommel and Khalid Boulahrouz are all one booking away from missing the second round match. Like his Argentine counterpart, van Basten is not prepared to take any risks with these players.
“We would be proud to finish top of the group and beat Argentina as they are among the favorites to win the World Cup,” he said.
“However, we will not be taking any risks with our players ahead of the next round and so if we beat them it will be with a weakened team. To an extent they are in the same position as us, so it should be an interesting game and it provides somebody with an opportunity to make a name for themselves.”
Holland approach tonight’s encounter as one of the World Cup’s form teams. They are unbeaten in their last fourteen competitive games, and the second-half goal conceded against Ivory Coast last Friday brought an end to a run of ten consecutive clean sheets in competitive games – a European record. A mention should also go to the veteran goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar of Manchester United. If selected tonight he will equal Frank de Boer’s Dutch record of 112 caps. Holland’s safe passage into the second round means that he should take the record on his own at some stage over the weekend. Before the Ivory Coast scored on Friday he had gone 1,014 minutes without conceding in competitive games.
By Mark Robinson
Argentina: Abbondanzieri; Burdisso, Ayala, Milito, Sorin; Rodriguez, Mascherano, Cambiasso; Aimar; Tevez, Cruz
Holland: Van der Sar; Kromkamp, Ooijer, Jaliens, De Cler; Van der Vaart, Sneijder, Cocu; Kuyt, Van Nistelrooy, Van Persie
Referee:: Marco Rodriguez (Mexico)