The tone for a cold, wet morning in Mar del Plata was set with sleepy gripes from the wife about bringing in the washing. Pegamequemegusta, however, needed to nerd up on South Korea and so after putting on a jumper we crawled back into bed and watched them tear apart an embarrassingly poor contingent of gift-bearing Greeks in an unedifying, cliché-confirming spectacle.
Just as Christmas is the time when people from all faiths come together to worship Jesus Christ, so the World Cup, besides having the unprecedented effect of getting the wife out of bed before noon, saw a crew so motley turn up at the house you’d have been forgiven for thinking Tommy Lee was shooting another charming episode of 3rd World Cribs. The ma-in-law was also present, as was a lecturer from the local university, and the three of them continued rating the players’ looks (Jeremy ‘Ooh-la-la’ Toulalan is currently leading the charts). Plans were sketched for a gay WC where the cheering of goals would take second place to the raucous support for grace and full heads of hair. It was lamented that the chance had been lost to impose such rules this year in the Rainbow Nation.
Argentina were already one-nil up at this point and pegamequemegusta had already emptied the ashtray once or twice. Messi was dancing round Nigerian defenders. Occasionally Higuaín took time out to engage in a preemptive mocking of Emile Heskey. Argentina weren’t holding on to the ball much but this was because they were too busy zig-zagging towards goal over and over again. There was evidence of the good training ground work so talked up by the players in successive short free kicks, which saw Messi draw saves from the excellent Nigerian goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama. He’s arguably been the revelation of the World Cup so far (though Rupert Fryer did say yesterday he was already touted for a big money move after the tournament).
Still, we were expecting Argentina to start well. That’s what Diego’s for. It was afterwards, about the 20 minute mark, we were interested in. Despite the slick attacking play, Tevez sliding a pass in to Messi breaking in from the right for a good chance which was saved yet again being another highlight, Argentina didn’t hold on to the ball too well.
As pegamequemegusta feared, banging the ball up behind Jonás was not beyond Lagerback’s ken. He looked thoroughly uncomfortable and was exposed time and time again. While he had all the positional sense of a hamster after an ill-advised ride in a washing machine, it wasn’t really his fault: the lack of support from the wings/midfield left him horribly exposed.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. The 4-3-3 with Jonás at right back was supposed to turn into a 3-4-3, such would be Argentina’s dominance of possession. That’s why Tevez was included, and it’s one of the reasons Verón’s inclusion would be certain to go from a cereal-spluttering trigger to an inspired piece of genius from the manager. All brain and no legs, Seba was certain to keep the ball revolving among the multiple strikers, who would in turn offer constant options for Messi in order to bring him into the game as much as possible. And Higuaín would offer a presence around the box for when the spinning, dribbling, passing machine made its inevitable advance. Not the tactics of a madman by any means.
Key to this strategy, however, is to press high up the pitch. Maradona had thought of this: three weeks ago he signalled that this would be his approach owing to the fact that “there are no Beckenbauers in football these days.” Yet this tactic, too, was nullified quite easily by the Nigerians, who went down the wings with considerable ease or just punted it forward.
In the house, when the discussion did not revolve around appreciations of pin cushions or talk of Gabriel Heinze being the perfect poster boy for gay tourism in Tucumán, pegamequemegusta’s every word was being treated as financial regulator truth. On the net, however, such was our need for near civilised debate, it seemed no-one agreed. ‘Good pressing from Argentina’ appeared over and over again.
Argentina were attacking, Messi was on fire, but they looked vulnerable. Only a lack of class and a poor team selection by Lagerback seemed to be the difference between them exploiting the space and lack of pace in the Argentine defence.
Neither was there much support for our half-time criticism of Verón’s performance. Some Greek lad on the Guardian Fans’ Network got on our case saying that he was ‘controlling the game’ when in fact he had conceded possession several times after completely miscontrolling the ball. And the match clearly had no controlling force – it was more Pollock than Poussin.
On the Guardian’s Minute by Minute, Rob Smyth summed up the first half hour as so: “Argentina haven’t actually been very fluent, despite all those chances. Most have come from set pieces or the genius of Messi. Verón and Tevez have been peripheral, I’ve just remembered Di María is on the pitch, and Higuain has missed two sitters.” And a minute later: “Verón plays an extravagant clipped pass. Straight into touch. I’ve missed him.”
Di María really was absent. When half-time did come, Maradona ran onto the pitch to throw a consoling arm around him and make a show of protecting the kid. While Tevez had been out of the loop, too, the more or less stretched game should really have suited the youngster, who, unlike Tevez, is at his best when he’s running on to the ball. As Tim Vickery described him on Ger Gilroy’s show on Newstalk yesterday afternoon, “he’s a flyer.” His all-round performance today was really disappointing considering how important he could be to Argentina’s hopes: in theory he’s the Robben to Messi’s Schneider.
As things turned out, he was only replaced in the final minutes by Burdisso, who finally came on at right back. Maxi had come on earlier for the tired Verón, who revealed afterwards he had been carrying a knock from training the day before. Maxi did well and might have had a penalty if he hadn’t dived a little too theatrically. His energy made a difference to Argentina’s attack, which had disappeared again after a bright opening spell at the beginning of the second half.
Yet the substitution should have been made earlier. Jonás was as isloated as ever and now had a booking to his name. Nigeria were getting closer. Demichelis was losing his aura as he was forced to actually intervene in situations, usually with horrendous results. The switch seemed obvious: Burdisso/Clemente for Di María, Jonás and Maxi as the two battling ‘wingers’ with Masche in the middle ahead of a flat back four (Cambiasso and Banega in a perfect world, but whatever). A nice platform with the three forwards ahead…
There was many a gesticulation on the Argentine bench. El Negro Enrique and Mancuso were huddled in conspiratorial colloquy for most of the second half. But for the first time ever, Maradona seemed relectant to make the change! Pegamequemegusta kept wondering whether that 1980s suit Diego had on had affected his brain somehow.
Maradona had obviously decided that he didn’t want to chop and change straight away, Capello-style. Three weeks ago in an extensive interview lovingly edited and translated by pegamequemegusta, Diego donned his confessorial robes and admitted he’d made “a lot of mistakes” during the qualifiers but that he’d learned, among other things, “To treat the players better. To respect them more.” After working for a few weeks on building team spirit, hauling off promising young players like Di María or Higuaín was not going to be a constructive step. Nonetheless, having said that, he could have done so without waiting quite so long. He got lucky.
Nonetheless, having said that, so did Nigeria. Messi took the piss today and if it weren’t for their goalkeeper his best game so far in an Argentina jersey would have been crowned with a goal or two. Maradona, back in his civvies and munching an apple (he doesn’t eat breakfast and was clearly famished) said after the game that he wasn’t unhappy with any aspects of the performance: “If we’d have scored three out of five chances we created today, we’d be talking about an amazing performance. Their keeper was awesome.” Besides a few scares, which weren’t all that terrible either, Romero dealing comfortably enough with most of them, it was a professional, mature performance from Argentina today, similar to the Germany friendly back in March. We’ll see what happens over the next few days with regards to the Korea game. Pegamequemegusta would like to see some changes, but can’t help feeling hypocritical after all the slagging Maradona has taken for his endless rotations. In any case, Messi has arrived in South Africa more pumped up than the Michelin Man. As Diego chesired in the post-match press conference: “As long as Messi has the ball and is happy, we all enjoy watching him. Today he did some amazing things.”