3216: World Cup Preview - Group C;
by : Stephen Orford
When the World Cup roadshow rolled into Korea and Japan in 2002 Argentina suffered one of its greatest ever humiliations.
Almost mandatory qualifiers for the big event, Macelo Bielsa’s side crashed out in the opening group phase, a run which included a particularly painful 1-0 defeat to England in Sapporo. That despite entering the tournament as one of the favourites to lift the crown.
Four years later and Argentina, now coached by Jose Pekerman, are among the pre-tournament front runners once more. Though it has been 20 years since the nation celebrated the second of its two world titles, hopes are once again high in Buenos Airies and beyond that the class of 2006 can conquer the world.
Argentina were among the first teams to cement their place in the Germany shebang for 2006, and two of their four defeats in qualifying came long after they had the flights booked. Only a 3-1 defeat in Brazil gave the notoriously obsessive fans any cause for concern, and that was remedied when the scoreline was reversed in the return fixture on home soil. Two convincing victories over each of Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia were added to by home wins over Ecuador and Uruguay, leaving Chile and Paraguay as the only nations to avoid defeat to the Argentines in the protracted qualifying competition.
Group C offers yet more stiff tests for Perkerman’s squad, who face Holland, Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro en route to the last 16. Opening in Hamburg on June 10 against the African Cup of Nations runners-up, Argentina will look to take maximum points from that and the clash with Serbia and Montenegro in Gelsenkirchen six days later. The meeting with Holland on June 21 in Frankfurt is felt by many to be a likely group decider, with second round opposition from either Portugal or Mexico deemed almost inevitable also. In truth, Argentina could possibly do without the prospect of what would be a fiery Latin American clash with the Mexicans, but Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portuguese outfit hardly represent a soft touch either. If Argentina are going to add to their list of honours, they are going to do it the hard way.
Pekerman has assembled a squad which many feel is better equipped to prosper than Bielsa’s selection of four years ago. Possession of the football is the priority now rather than defensive rigidity, very much in the Argentine tradition of yesteryear. And yet there remains room in the side for the star names to express themselves, with Villarreal’s Juan Roman Riquelme very highly regarded along with Barcelona’s teen sensation Lionel Messi. Among the more experienced campaigners Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo shoulders the goalscoring burden, while another Villarreal man Juan Pablo Sorin combines captaincy duties with a role as either a left-back or a marauding left-sided midfield player whenever and wherever circumstances dictate.
Tactically Pekerman likes 4-4-2, but his midfield is often distinctly diamond shaped. Riquelme probes and cajoles at the point with Javier Mascherano holding now that Juan Sebastian Veron is merely a relic of Argentina sides past. Luis Gonzalez and Esteban Cambiasso offer width in midfield aswell as support to Crespo and one of either Messi or Carlos Tevez up front. In a back four full of experience and know-how, Sorin is joined by Manchester United star Gabriel Heinze, Valencia’s revered veteran Roberto Ayala and Fabricio Collocini. If there are any defensive question marks they concern goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri, who looks particularly vulnerable to high balls in the vicinity of his penalty area.
Theoretically a quarter-final clash with England could beckon, providing yet another chapter in the long running saga between the two nations at World Cups. Get past that test and anything is possible for Pekerman’s men, who are more desperate than ever to end the dominance of fierce South American rivals Brazil. Ladbrokes offer 7-1 on Argentina becoming world champions in Berlin on July 9, though much seems to depend on the ability of Riquelme and Messi in particular to influence games.
By Stephen Orford
May 30 2006