Messi emerges from Maradona's shadow
Diego Maradona's first competitive match in charge of Argentina was also the first time that Lionel Messi was handed his old number 10 shirt.
The numbering confirmed suspicions that with Juan Roman Riquelme retiring from international football, Messi is taking on more responsibility. He becomes the team's attacking general - like a latter day Maradona.
The dribble Messi produced at the very end of the 4-0 win over Venezuela was worthy of Maradona himself. It ended with a poke that was inches wide. After the game Maradona said that had the ball gone the other side of the post then the crowd would have been obliged to leave and pay to get in again.
Messi's was a Man of the Match performance. He cut Venezuela apart with incisive dribbles and beautifully slipped passes. And if he was bold in his acceptance of the number 10 challenge, so was Maradona in the team he selected for this special occasion.
In his two warm-up friendlies (beating Scotland 1-0 and France 2-0) Maradona played a back four with Martin Demichelis as his defensive lynchpin. But the Bayern Munich centre back was suspended for this game - and Maradona changed not only the personnel, he also switched the system.
Against Venezuela he went with a back three. In the middle, making his first start for his country, was Marcos Angeleri of Estudiantes, who has made a name for himself recently bursting forward from right back - the position where he made his Argentine debut last month, coming on for the last 10 minutes against France.
Now, though, he was played in his original position as a libero, where his pace is useful in snuffing out danger. On his right in the back line was the veteran Javier Zanetti, who has played almost his entire international career as a rampaging right back. And on his left was Gabriel Heinze, hardly the most popular player among the Argentine footballing public.
True, the opponents may not have been the strongest, but Venezuela have made huge strides over the last decade. In recent World Cup qualification campaigns they have beaten everyone in the continent bar Brazil and Argentina - and beat Brazil in a friendly last year.
In the 2006 qualifiers they won 3-0 away to Uruguay (where Brazil have never won a competitive game) and they beat Ecuador in this campaign. There is little doubt, then, that Maradona was taking a chance with his unorthodox back three.
Two names convinced him that the risk was worth taking - Mascherano and Gago.
This was the first time since last June's 0-0 draw away to Brazil that the pair of them were able to line up together in World Cup qualification. In the subsequent four rounds one or the other was either injured or suspended, and the team was without one of the most promising central midfield partnerships in international football.
Had the pair been available it is highly likely that Maradona would not be coach of Argentina. Results would probably have been better, and the pressure that forced his predecessor Alfio Basile to resign may not have been so intense.
Maradona has been lucky enough to have the Liverpool man (ex River Plate) and the Real Madrid midfielder (formerly of Boca Juniors) together in all three of his matches so far. He was quick to appreciate the value of their partnership. They complement each other so well - Mascherano to sit and Gago to knit, one to win the ball and the other to play it crisply to the strikers.
Against Venezuela the first half belonged to Mascherano, reading the game well, snapping his tackles in and dominating the space. And the second was Gago's - swinging the ball wide, his passes helped unlock the defence for two of the goals.
As Maradona has recognised, the Mascherano-Gago partnership provided balance to his side. With them in place he could go with his experimental back three - and also he could, for the first time, play Messi, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez in the same starting line up.
The tiny strike trio all made one and scored one - especially good news for Tevez, who had not scored in the campaign. Maradona felt vindicated in his selection, especially since some have been calling for the inclusion of a target man striker, and questioning the absence of Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain.
It is unlikely, though, that he will be able to field all three of them all the time - which presumably leaves Tevez on the bench. Someone - either a striker or one of the wide midfielders - has to drop out if he goes with a back four.
It is also worth noting that, despite winning 4-0, Argentina created little in the first half - I can recall Messi's goal and two other moments of danger. There are times when the variety of a back-to-goal striker would be useful, and may help bring the best out of Aguero (for if Messi brings back memories of Maradona, Aguero is the closest thing to Romario I have seen).
Then there is Juan Sebastian Veron. Now back with Estudiantes, he came on for the last 20 minutes. He was booed by some, cheered by others - since the 2002 World Cup flop he has divided opinions. Physically he may have lost something but the intelligence is all there. Admittedly by the time he came on for Tevez the game was won and space was easier to find, but Argentina's play flowed nicely while he was on. He immediately struck up a good partnership with Messi and his presence gave Gago more freedom to lope forward.
There are options, then, for Maradona to chew over. Wednesday away to Bolivia will teach us little. The extreme altitude of La Paz makes the game a one off. But the two rounds in June (home to Colombia and away to Ecuador) and September (home to Brazil and away to Paraguay) will shine a more searching light on the strengths and weaknesses of Diego Maradona's Argentina.
Comments on this piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to email@example.com and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) The Guardian's Sid Lowe recently made the case for Daniel Alves being the second best player in the world, yet he's not even considered the best right back in the Brazilian national team by Dunga.
I know Maicon is a fantastic player too, but better than Daniel Alves? Is that the consensus in Brazilian footballing circles?
A) I've been a Daniel Alves fan for longer than most - he's been in my notebook since I saw him for Bahia in 2002, and at the start of 2003 I picked him out in World Soccer magazine as one of the stars of the South American Under-20 Championships.
But, as Dunga says, 'the truth is out there on the pitch' and (Editor's note: Tim wrote this this before Sunday's 1-1 draw with Ecuador) there's no doubt that Maicon's performances for Brazil have been better.
Strange - the only time Daniel Alves has looked really at home in the national team is when he came on as an early sub in the 2007 Copa America final and played on the right of midfield.
Now, I've got my criticisms of Dunga, but I can't go along with the view that his preference for Maicon is a defensive option. That's not what Maicon is about, or what he does best. He steams forward with extraordinary power. Towards the end of last year Portugal forgot to mark him after half time and he took the game away from them in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps an advantage Daniel Alves has is his free kicks - especially if the physical decline of Ronaldinho stops him being picked - I believe Ronaldinho will only start against Ecuador because Kaka is injured. But so far anyway, Maicon is first choice on merit.
Q) I was interested in your thoughts on Fredy Montero. He is with the Seattle Sounders right now and he is Colombian I believe. Do you have any information on him? I watched the opening match and he was fantastic, clearly one of the most skilled players in MLS. Do you think he has the potential to move to Europe?
A) He caught my eye with Deportivo Cali and I like him a lot - skill, intelligence, vision and goals - an excellent combination. I thought Colombia treated him harshly last year - brought him into the national team for the World Cup qualifier against Paraguay, gave him a big build up and then hauled him off soon after half time and dropped him from the squad - a strange way to develop players.
To be honest, I was a bit disappointed when he went to the MLS - though his option does show how well the league has established itself. There was interest from Europe - and perhaps a club in Argentina would have been a good choice, since a number of top class Colombians have developed there.
So yes, I do think he has it in him to play in Europe. His compatriot Toja has made the switch form the MLS to Europe, so perhaps Montero can do it as well.