Maradona`s Argentina faces Nigeria at World Cup

Last Updated: Jun 11, 2010, 12:21 PM IST

Johannesburg: The memorable feature of Argentina`s performance in its opening World Cup match against Nigeria might be either some Lionel Messi inspired brilliance, or just a plain mess.

Argentina has come to South Africa with a powerful team, its group of elite goalscorers led by Barcelona`s Messi. But the haphazard direction of coach Diego Maradona has created doubts over the team`s readiness for the World Cup.

With Maradona using more than 100 players during the
qualifying rounds, Argentina barely made it to South Africa
after winning its last qualifier, against Uruguay, and
narrowly avoiding a playoff with Costa Rica for a spot at the
World Cup.

Leading into tomorrow`s match at the Ellis Park Stadium,
Maradona seems to have decided that he just can`t have enough
scorers. He is expected to leave out defender Nicolas Otamendi
in order to have Messi, Real Madrid`s Gonzalo Higuain and
Manchester City`s Carlos Tevez leading a three-pronged attack.

With Diego Milito and Sergio Aguero available on the
bench, Argentina`s scoring chances should be numerous. Yet,
despite having some of the world`s best at his disposal,
Maradona`s capacity to pull it all together and send a
disciplined, well-drilled team onto the pitch is far from
certain.

Widely regarded along with Pele as the best ever
footballer, "El Diego" led Argentina to victory at the 1986
World Cup in Mexico and to the final against Germany four
years later. But his coaching credentials are thin - just two
brief spells with Argentine club
teams Racing de Avellaneda and Mandiyu in the mid-1990s.

Some unexpected selection choices - such as the absence
of Inter Milan defender Javier Zanetti - and his bizarre
relationship with the media have also made it hard for
Maradona to carry over the respect he had as a player to his
current assignment.

Still, Argentina is the favorite to win Group B, which
also includes Greece and South Korea.

While Nigeria is not quite the dynamic team which lived
up to its nickname of the "Super Eagles" in the 1990s, it is
ranked third in Africa behind Egypt and Cameroon and reached
the gold medal match at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where it
lost 1-0 to Argentina.

The speed of the Nigerians could cause problems for
Argentina, which despite victories over Nigeria at the 1994
and 2002 World Cups shows nothing but careful admiration for
the squad coached by Sweden`s Lars Lagerback.

"Nigeria is a strong and fast team which could present
difficulties in a first game," said midfielder Juan Sebastian
Veron. "They have experienced players who play in some of the
best leagues in Europe."

Argentine defender Gabriel Heinze marveled at the
athleticism of the Nigerians, saying he`d never seen Marseille
teammate Taye Taiwo tired.

Nigeria will be without injured Chelsea midfielder John
Obi Mikel, while their attack will likely be led by Malaga`s
Victor Obinna and Everton`s Yakubu Aiyegbeni. In its last
exhibition match before the World Cup, Nigeria defeated North
Korea 3-1 this week in Johannesburg.

Maradona, by contrast, chose to give his team a longer
rest and they haven`t played since a 5-0 drubbing of Canada at
Buenos Aires on May 24. With players from other World Cup
team`s picking up injuries in recent friendlies, Maradona`s
decision might be the right one and it may be a more relaxed
squad which tries to win Argentina`s third World Cup title.

In any case, Maradona declared himself to be "the
happiest man on earth" last week and was confident his team
would go deep into the to tournament.

"These kids deserve to reach the final because of all of
their efforts," Maradona said. "And based on what they are
showing me, they are sure to achieve it."

Bureau Report