Argentina boost World Cup credentials
The warm-up work could hardly have gone better for the South American World Cup sides in action last week.
Paraguay had trouble finding opposition and had to settle for a visit to Athletic Bilbao, who fielded an under strength side. No problem. Coach Gerardo Martino had plenty to smile about after his side's 3-1 win.
Oscar Cardozo, a target for the boo boys back home, finally found the form he produces for club side Benfica and scored twice but, more importantly, star man Roque Santa Cruz is showing signs of coming good at the right time. In the presumed absence of Salvador Cabanas, recovering from a shooting in Mexico City, this is good news indeed.
Uruguay gave notice of their firepower with a thoroughly convincing 3-1 win away to Switzerland. With Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, backed up by Sebastian Abreu and Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayans have plenty of dangerous strikers, but the big recent development has been the emergence of Nicolas Lodeiro as a playmaker, providing new layers of subtlety to what was a crash, bang, wallop side.
But the week's big winner was Argentina coach Diego Maradona. While other teams went into their games with World Cup systems and personnel more or less defined, this was not the case with Argentina when they took the field in Germany.
But when the whistle blew to end an intense match in Munich, they had won by the only goal and Maradona could feel happy that, after the confusion of their qualifying campaign, he finally had a team to take to the World Cup.
One goal was enough for Diego Maradona's Argentina in their friendly against Germany - Pic: Getty
Argentina's coach has called up countless players in his brief reign, but the team which beat Germany showed just one change from the one which sealed qualification with a 1-0 win away to Uruguay five months ago.
The striking thing about the side is the defensive line made up of four centre backs - on Wednesday, it was Nicolas Otamendi, Martin Demichelis, Walter Samuel and Gabriel Heinze (some might quibble with Heinze, who has played at left-back - but when he took over Maradona was adamant that the ex-Manchester United man should be considered as a centre-back).
Against Uruguay, this looked like a one off - a way of countering the opposing strikers in a match where a draw was good enough. Now it looks like something more definitive.
Sorting out the defence was Maradona's most urgent priority, and given the fact that the Germans had just one shot on target, his back line passed the test. But fielding four centre backs has implications for the team in possession. It means that there will be no consistent repeat of the pretty midfield patterns weaved by 2006 side, with the elegance of Riquelme at its hub. This team will inevitably be more based on the counter-attack.
It is a very different approach from the expansive passing football in which Lionel Messi shines at Barcelona. There, he has Daniel Alves as an explosive right-back, opening up the flank and creating space for Messi to cut in on the diagonal.
Argentina, however, have Nicolas Otamendi at right-back, a promising defender but one with few attacking skills, and on the right of midfield is Newcastle's Jonas Gutierrez, who ran and covered for the entire 90 minutes against the Germans, but who is not the sharpest of offensive weapons.
Messi, then, is sacrificed. But that doesn't mean he is useless. Maradona intelligently made a point of defending his number 10 after the Germany game. Without doing anything extraordinary, Messi was fundamental to Wednesday's victory.
He likes the ball played to his feet, so the opposition crowd men around him to reduce his space. With the defence sucked across, space opens up for Juan Veron to hit the diagonal ball for Angel Di Maria on the other flank. The Benfica flyer enjoys the ball played in front of him, and has the pace and left foot to do serious damage. Reminiscent of Veron's link up with Claudio Lopez a decade ago, that partnership with Di Maria looks vital to Argentina's World Cup bid.
Flying winger Angel Di Maria tangles with German midfielder Michael Ballack - Pic: Getty
There is a danger, though, that the counter-attackers might themselves be counter-attacked. Playing away to both Uruguay and Germany perhaps suited Argentina's new system. The onus to take the initiative was with the opposition.
But things will be different in the World Cup, especially in the group phase against Nigeria, South Korea and Greece. There is the danger, against cautious rivals, that as Argentina circulate the ball their defenders might be caught in situations for which they are ill prepared.
The first half against Germany provided an example. A move down the right lost momentum when the ball reached Otamendi. He played infield, and then as Samuel burst forward he was caught in possession. A dangerous German break was only snuffed out by Demichelis clattering into the striker and picking up a yellow card.
Maradona, of course, can work on alternatives for different types of games. He might think in terms of using conventional full backs for the group games, and then reverting to his four centre-backs for the knock out stage.
He can tinker with tranquillity because now he knows that the base of his team is set. And as he recalled this week, not too many people had faith in Argentina when they set off for the World Cup of 1986.....
Comments on the piece in the space provided. 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) Just back from seeing Brazil play at the Emirates, I happened to be sitting close to the dugouts and my abiding memory of the evening will be the dog's abuse dished out to coach Dunga, by various Brazilians seated nearby (for more or less the full ninety). I don't speak Portuguese, but I imagine that the dissenters were not asking him round for a post-game pie and a pint.
Have to say it got me wondering as to why is he so detested, is the football or his personality that gets people's goat? Does he care (he certainly looked mightily relieved after the 2nd goal). And do the press feel the same way about him as some of the fans clearly do?
A) Hating the national team coach is an old Brazilian tradition. In victory the credit goes to the star players, in defeat the blame goes to the coach. Despite a reign full of good results, Dunga is probably an extreme case because of his combative personality, current refusal to call up Ronaldinho and the pragmatic nature of his side's play.
To be fair, the team were applauded after a 0-0 draw at home to Venezuela in the last round of World Cup qualification, showing an unusual tolerance for a Brazil crowd, and Dunga can take this as evidence of good results and commitment bringing about an approximation between public and players - the coach, though, is always sitting in a coconut shy.
There have indeed been times when the press has been gunning for him - results have kept them quieter, though there is the potential for mischief making in the calls for a Ronaldinho recall. The definitive judgement on his reign will be made after the World Cup. If Brazil don't win the verdict will not be favourable.
Q) Question about Wellington Silva of Fluminense, many big clubs have been following him over the years (even though being only 16/17) Arsenal signed him up, just wondering is he worth the £3.5 million and will he succeed like Rafael and Fabio at United when he finally moves to England at 18? Or will he struggle to settle like many other young Brazilians in Europe?
A) I'm just back from seeing him come on for the last 10 minutes and set up the winner against Botafogo. First up, a mea culpa. Fluminese had two Welllingtons (a pair!) in Brazil's under-17 squad. In terms of the Arsenal interest, first I thought it was the right one, then for a while got confused and believed it was the other, a midfielder.
The correct one is a little support striker, two footed and audacious who is adept at attacking from wide spaces. On early evidence, there is real talent there, though maybe a reason to be concerned as well. He scored on his debut just over a week ago, and broke down in tears, which seemed linked to the fact that he's already leaving the club. So worries that everything might be happening too quickly. There are also doubts about how he might stand up to the more physical nature of the English game. But it's still very early days.
He's making the news over here because there are photos of him wearing the shirt of local rivals Flamengo and Botafogo - and probably Vasco as well, because he played futsal there. I'm thinking of taking him a Tottenham shirt this week!