Humiliation at home to Brazil has left Maradona’s side struggling to qualify for the World Cup.

By Rex Gowar in Rosario
Taken as a single 10-nation group, the South American World Cup qualifiers should always provide a fail-safe passage into the finals for the top teams, and neither Brazil nor Argentina have failed to do so since its creation a decade ago.

However, in 2001 Brazil walked a knife edge until Luiz Felipe Scolari steadied the team, got them through and went on to win the World Cup a year later. And now it is Argentina, who under Marcelo Bielsa won the same qualifying tournament at a canter but failed miserably in Japan in 2002, who are in trouble.

Diego Maradona, hitting out at media criticism of his coaching and the team’s performances, reminded them of Argentina’s flirtation with elimination in 1985 when they snatched a late draw against Peru at River Plate’s Monumental stadium. Less than a year later they had become world champions.

Peru have been at Argentina’s crossroads more than once – eliminating them from the 1970 World Cup and losing 6-0 in Rosario during the 1978 finals – and they will be there again, in Buenos Aires, on the second weekend in October in the penultimate qualifier.

While defiant Argentinians say the twice world champions will still qualify, the more pessimistic half of the country think it is now a lost cause. And there are even some – those who dislike Maradona and AFA president Julio Grondona – who would like to see a big failure to usher in a new regime.

Maradona went into the Brazil game determined his team would win and organised what he thought was the right setting, saying the players felt the crowd was distant in the vast River Plate arena and that Argentina would put the Brazilians against the ropes in the compact Rosario Central ground.

It backfired badly because the lessons of recent confrontations, and most particularly the 2007 Copa America Final, were not heeded. Argentina went all out in attack, pinning Brazil into their half, and left themselves exposed at the back.

Caught out badly
Questions were asked of Maradona’s practice sessions after Argentina were caught out badly at two set-pieces in the first half. Half an hour gone and they were 2-0 down despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession.

In Brazil’s first attack, in the 24th minute, a free-kick taken on the right by Elano found the unmarked Luisao who placed his header inside the far post, out of reach of the diving keeper Mariano Andujar.

On the half hour, another quickly taken free-kick out on the left led to a shot from Kaka being parried by Andujar and Luis Fabiano netting the rebound. Brazil coach Dunga later said it was “a victory for technique” and while his side may not play a beautiful game their skill was still present in such precise finishing.

Jesus Datolo looked for a moment like a saviour when he scored with a rare long-range effort. But, within two minutes, Brazil doused the flames of a revival when Kaka split the thin defence with a fine pass behind Nicolas Otamendi and Luis Fabiano chipped over Andujar.

The cheers of “Dunga, Dunga” that rang out as the final whistle approached did not come exclusively from the small group of yellow-bedecked Brazilian fans. Argentina were seen to have failed badly and many were worried that a better-organised Paraguay would also beat their team four days later in Asuncion.

Lionel Messi was a forlorn figure, his head bowed most of the time, as he failed to inspire a telling move and blasted a shot, and later a free-kick, over the bar. Maradona had said in the build-up that Messi looked better than ever before in training and pointed to five goals in a 45-minute game – but it was against a local youth team.

Brazil’s back four, with Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo in front of them, are a formidable wall that one would never dare compare with a team of 18-year-olds, and waiting for Messi were three or four defenders lined up in phases.

That should be enough to hush the debate that raged in Argentina over why Messi can’t reproduce his Barcelona form with the national team. He was accused of lacking character, of not using his head. As if he had planned a retort, he went back to La Liga and headed a goal for Barcelona in their next league game.

The concluding part of this article will be published tomorrow.