The Fear

I

The Battle of Cerro Corá, dear beardless ones, was the final battle of the War of the Triple Alliance. In a scheduling nightmare men with sabres vowed would never be repeated, Uefa’s Franco-Prussian fan zone extravaganza was going on at the same time. As usual, however, the Conmebol version was far more robust. Paraguay, raised high in the breeding grounds of the life-bringing waters of the Ríos Paraná, Pilcomayo & Co., sought to exert more control over lands south of her far too restricted borders. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay formed a troublesome barrier to her ambition, however. The Paraguayan coach and his Irish physio/floozy knew they had some problems at the back but they had faith in their attack, especially given England’s assistance in that area – oh the eternally angle-working England – so they went ahead with the invasion anyway. About 70% of the male population of Paraguay died in the war. At Cerro Corá, the final battle, the last remnants of Paraguay’s army were retreating along with their fleeing coaching staff. In order to gain time, children were dressed in army uniforms and little beards were painted on their little faces. From a distance they might just look like a real team and the invaders take a little longer to advance. Brave gambles on another man’s reticence is one of the things we prize most highly, as long as we are not among the victims. Yet victims there were. Paraguay’s painted children were no match for the combined forces of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, every regiment of which had its own professional beheader, a knife-wielding Diego Lugano-type figure who shuns the sword or rifle as pansyish, arms-length communication devices utterly devoid of the personal touch. Romance, according to a contemporary stone etching, is the glint of the beloved’s eyes in a blade flashing like a hand-held star, powered by the heart.

Romance, eh. It can be hard to be romantic when the other lies prostrate at your feet, unable to stand, blubbering blushing inanities. Well, depends what you’re into, really. Those of a more sadistic bent will no doubt have spent the 2014 Eliminatorias purring contentedly, cheering a succession of hefty wins. Four against Ecuador and Chile respectively, three against Uruguay, five against Paraguay. Stop hitting yourself, Paraguay!

Last time out, it was argued that the South American qualifiers were largely responsible for getting all five teams into the second round and four of them (Chile fell to Brazil) into the quarter finals. The long trips, the changing seasons, climates and altitudes, the different styles, the derbies and long history of scores to settle, over the course of the campaign a unit could be formed whose discipline, timing and murderous instincts had all been honed on the road. The Uefa version was derided as a non-event, a rabbit-killing exercise (did you know you can punish a rabbit by standing it up against the wall?) that left England, Portugal and so on faffy, bloated and with suspiciously clean fingernails.

That line hardly stands up this time given Brazil’s absence. Chile were able to ditch their manager half-way through and regroup, while Uruguay made a play-off with Jordan after finishing fifth in nine-team league. Even Argentina’s string of heavy victories now seems an awful long time ago. Continuity and a clear idea tend to be hailed as the most effective, the most desirable qualities a national team can hope to groove on. Yet it seems that at this World Cup – and, in a revisionist stroke, the last one, too – freshness and spontaneity are what will bring the greatest number of enemy heads in a sack. (BYOS). You can have all the clarity you want, but if you really want to mix things up, you have to be able to surprise and strike terror into your opponent.

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II

It appears that when Argentina lined up against Iran ten days ago, they did so with little colouring pencils in hand. When not cutting each other’s hair – the modern footballers chief delight – they had been practising drawing little moustaches that curled to a cheeky point and Duchampian goatees on their supposed victims. Before Messi’s thunderbastard, the team they most reminded pegamequegusta of was England of the last fifteen years or so – all empty swagger with no cohesive aggression or control to back it up. Indeed, the debate over the line-up and maximisation of resources was harrowingly similar to the Stevie G/Lampard cataclysm. Iran clearly didn’t fear them. Horror was surging from within Gago’s pointless shuffling, a nervous tic betraying repression at full tilt.

In his press conference the following day, however, Ángel Di María was having none of it. “Why do you think the team is playing bady?” he was asked. “What do you mean we’re playing badly? I didn’t say that. Maybe you think that but as far I can tell we’ve won two matches and qualified for the next round.” Good, thought pegamequemegusta. This team needs a fired up Di María, one with a machete in his hand and a point to prove; one with whom pride may be fucking, Bruce Willis-style; one for who a Champo League triumph actually needs to be backed up with further glory.

For at the last WC he fairly bottled it and left criticising Maradona, the only one to do so despite the manager having stuck by him through a six-game suspension and some horrible performances where he was outran, outshone, outballsed and outscored by a 32-year-old Heinze. Sure, talking is one thing, but he Brought It against Nigeria, taking up inside positions, complementing the midfield and generally causing havoc. His poor performances in South Africa meant his crucial role in Maradona’s plan was never fulfilled. In the first minute of the Mexico match he was caught on the ball and bundled over: he lay with his face pressed to the turf for quite some time, before peeking up through his fingers a la Busquets. This time he seems more mature, is one of the only Argentine players in fine physical shape and, far from harbouring fear, seems to have embraced the creative possibilities of the death drive. Indeed, they’re grappling as we speak, but reports say he has Eros by the balls.

He must be wary, however. There’s a Norwegian novelist out there who wants to get a little too close. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote an article recently in the New Republic‘s series The Literary Eleven: Writers and Intellectuals on the World Cup’s most Compelling Characters – yes, you’re right to shudder, dear soon-to-have-two-rest-days-in-a-row sufferer – where he dreamed up a laudably insane parallel between Di María and Franz Kafka. The principle reason for the comparison is that he claims they look alike. However, he goes on to say that unlike the over-rehearsed moves of Ronaldo, Di María has that spark of sudaka unpredictability, the gift of being able to put the unexpected into relief, opening life up even though it reveals nothing other than itself, just like Franz in literature. “It gives me goosebumps to see it, and I shout, THIS IS SO GREAT!”

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That last sentence made our fear-gizzard tremble.

III

Here we are, though, a few sleepless hours from a quarter-final. Talking about press conferences and creepy New Republic loonies. Besides a nice move or two in the first hour against Nigeria, though, there has been fairly little to discuss regarding Argentina in this World Cup. We had the formation mini-crisis that in the end wasn’t one; we had the Iran-contra affair. Besides that, it’s been slow. Sabella’s delegation is well-organised and tight-lipped, so news is slow. One night on TyC, Horacio Pagani even told us he had to eat alone in his bedroom. “Solitude makes me a bit depressed,” he said about his meal of soup with some hotdogs. He thought about throwing himself out the window, only being dissuaded by the fact he was on the second floor. “You break all your bones without solving anything,” one of the studio boys said. Quite.

Pegamequemegusta almost envied other teams that were fighting to stay alive; we almost envied teams that were gone for having lived moments of hope and crushing lows already. At least they had something to shout about. If it hadn’t been for the fans’ glorious rendition of Bad Moon Rising, it could almost have been as if the World Cup hadn’t begun for Argentina

For the last few days here, for example, the tv, papers and twitter have been full of profound reports on.. you guessed it, dear toasted one, Lavezzi’s tattoos. Lavezzi has a tat of a glock sticking down into his shorts and another one of Jesus and another of the seven-times tables, just in case. Images abounded of Lavezzi as a more rotund youngster, before his floppy hair gave way to an exquisitely-sculpted Iron Man look. The video of him squirting water on Sabella was shown alongside him tugging a most-displeased-looking Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s nose. What a character! 

Of course he played well when he came on for the crocked Kun Agüero against Nigeria. Against Switzerland, too, he’ll bring speed and energy to a team that tends to plod. In attack he gets to the byline, while in defence he should be reliable enough to help out the oft-exposed Zabaleta. That’s about it, though. After all the initial excitement, it was clear the media was taking the Carlos Tevez vacuum hard. For Messi has given us some outstanding moments so far, but if Argentina fail to make the quarter-final at least, they will fade into insignificance. These Messi goals have to be a preamble, not necessarily to ever greater golazos, but to moments of transcendence. Otherwise they were just sublime acts of infanticide.

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Indeed, our only real complaint regarding press conferences are the opportunities lost by the generally quite inane questions put to the players. We’d like to hear more probing enquiries, dilemmas that seek to crank open the hinges of the protagonists’ fears and preoccupations, questions that can’t be answered by platitudes. Would you rather wake up buried in a coffin or find yourself in an open space faced with a marauding head-chopper? If you had to sacrifice a limb, which would it be? What would you be willing to do to guarantee a place in the final? Would you miss a year of football, whether through a reputation-destroying ban or a career-threatening injury? How many disabled children would you slap for a goal in the World Cup final? What makes you tick, guy? What, if anything, are you afraid of?

IV

Terror is, after all, the lifeblood of international ball. Otherwise, it would be little more than an exotic Uefa Cup. Terror is watching your boys battle against apparently more skilful players you’ve never heard of, watching in horror as you gradually learn their names from the commentary and pass-after-terrifying corner they burn themselves into your long-term memory. Terror is Hernán Crespo raging a decade later at the impudence of Anders Svensson for rocketing a free kick into the top corner. Terror is Clint Dempsey or Tim Cahill running clipped mayhem at confounded defences: aaahhhh. For terror is inflicted as much as it is suffered. One cannot say one does not believe in terror. Terror is.

Hence the chilliest of chills last week when we read Olé’s interview with Martín Demichelis (again by Marcelo Sottile and Hernán Claus). In truth, it was strangely moving to read, a list of bumbling errors and setbacks. Demichelis was last seen in an Argentina shirt giving away a silly goal against Bolivia more than two and a half years ago. Before that he had also given away several goals at the World Cup, including a notable blunder against Korea (the only goal they conceded before the quarter finals). He tells how his five-year-old son cries at not being able to emulate Messi. “‘I can’t do that,’ he said, frustrated. I calmed him down and told him: ‘Don’t worry, either can I.'” Yet he played for Bayern for seven years, and this season he was having a great game against Barcelona – until he gave away a peno and got sent off. He’s not in the starting line-up today but we were still amazed Sabella brought him to Brazil as despite some positive qualities, for us he can only be a curse, that most implacable figure of terror.

  • What did you learn from the mistake against Bolivia?
  • I had just got across well and knocked the ball out for a throw. And it was from that throw the mistake came: I decided not to play out from the back. The ball fell on my left foot and I tried to get it up so I could clear it with my right. Their forward got goalside of me and that was that, I couldn’t catch him…
  • How were the following days?
  • Bad. Really bad. In the stadium I loved the most I’d had the worst moment of my career. I’ve gotten injured playing for la Selección – an ankle operation, metal plates in my face – but you accept those things as part of the job. A mistake like that is different… Especially when there are loads of other things behind it: the poor Copa América, the bad start to the qualifiers after losing to Venezuela for the first time ever, the fact that they had raised the prices of tickets for the match so that day the Monumental was half-empty…
  • Did Sabella say anything to you at the time?
  • He was very sincere. We had a long talk before travelling to Colombia. He reminded me of a line el Bambino Veira had once said to a goalkeeper: ‘I’m taking you out to protect you.’ Alejandro added, though: “I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I’m not taking you out to protect you. I’m taking you out because I have to protect the group and at the moment your confidence is rock bottom.” He was right. I’ve had plenty of setbacks in my career, but that one was a knock-out blow.
  • Did you think that was the end of your international career?
  • Well… Look, in training before the match in Barranquilla we were having a kick around and they put me up front. I must have scored about ten goals that day. That’s when I thought: ‘Ah, this is their way of saying goodbye, ha.’

That ‘ha’, bejaysus. The fear. The corrosive fear of making a mistake; the productive fear of avenging one; the demoralising fear of fear present; the motivating fear that desire channels; the panic surefire decapitation spreads; el terror Lío Messi.

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Argentina 0-4 Germany – Part II: Full of High Sentence but a Bit Obtuse

With Tevez, Di María and Higuaín all performing so badly and with such a lack of discipline, Maradona’s plan imploded spectacularly on Saturday. Despite, as Jonathan Wilson says in his Sports Illustrated article, Argentina looking the more ‘threatening team’ after the opening 20 minutes or so, they didn’t create one decent chance. On Off the Ball tonight, he expanded on why Argentina’s approach should work, saying, in characteristic fashion, that “triangles always beat lines”. The only two times we remember the forwards actually making those angles they created two half-chances: the first when Messi put Tevez through; the second when Higuaín was caught offside. This was supposed to be Argentina’s great strength but they individuals failed spectacularly. They were impatient from the off. Frustrated with their own ineptitude, it wasn’t long before they began shooting lamely over the bar from 25 yards. A strikeforce that had promised to slice the German defence in a manner reminscent of a mathematician’s wet dream, ended up looking but full of high sentence and more than little obtuse.

Part II

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two […]

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool.

Pegamequemegusta would not be at all surprised to learn that all of these wretched scribblers – though we are all scribbling wretchedly for our one reader, Jebus – have a framed picture of famed tactics guru and Krang impersonator, Jonathan Wilson, sitting on their desks midst the piles of kleenex and take-away receptacles. Unfortunately, they lack the knowledge, writing ability and the class.

Jonathan Wilson towers above his imitators

In his preview of the game, he argued that Argentina had the edge over Germany, and not just due to certain individual talents. Even in midfield, he reckoned Maxi and Di María should have been able to make up for their lack of energy against Schweinsteiger and Khedira with their movement: “And if Di Maria does start to drift left, threatening to unleash the crossing ability that proved so devastating at Benfica last season, then Germany really is in trouble.

The forwards

As it turned out, however, no matter where Di María drifted in the game he was going to be equally ineffective. We talked in our own preview about how important he was to the team. Following the abandonment of Maradona’s ‘Verón is my Xavi’ plan, and Jonás’s replacement by Otamendi to ensure greater balance and security, the Xavi-Iniesta tandem was entrusted to a deep-lying combination of Tevez & Messi. In this schema, with the real Lionel operating almost as a decoy, Di María was effectively supposed to take on the Messi role. (Not that Argentina were trying to ape Barcelona but certain aspects of their plan are best illustrated by a comparison with that team).

The new idea was quite sophisticated and received a great deal of kudos from pegamequemegusta and everyone who enjoyed watching Argentina in the opening games. All the time, however, they were carrying Di María, who looked as composed as a bag of snakes. We signalled in the preview that what we considered one of Maradona’s most astute decisions looked like it was going to blow up in his face.

He did up his game somewhat in the Germany match – at least this time he looked for the ball – didn’t know what foot he wanted to use and his execution was woeful. He is certainly well capable of the role but it appears the burden was too much for Real Madrid’s new signing. (Indeed, we wonder if that added sense of expectation wasn’t another contributory factor to his flaccid WC).

Pegamequemegusta doesn’t mean to blame Di María for a 4-0 defeat, though, not by any means. Besides the defence, which we never expected to be the most solid unit known to man since Diego Forlán’s six-pack, we reserve a great share of that for other favourite players of ours, and much more experienced ones, too.

Carlitos Tevez, for example, had an absolute nightmare. Olé gave him a 5/10 when the rest of his teammates averaged about 3/10. These extra points were down to his commitment and his fighting spirit, the old Carlitos clichés. We love Tevez but he talks too much. In 2006 he spent the entire build-up to the Germany match talking about how if it came to penalties he was going to take the first and blast it at Lehman’s head: “it’ll either be a goal or it’ll take his head off.” Funny, ballsy, delightful; but when it came to the penalty shoot-out he was absent. Ayala and Cambiasso stepped up before him; they missed and Argentina were out.

Tevez last Monday

Likewise this week, his two goals against Mexico meant he was on the front cover of Olé last Monday and was shooting his mouth off all week. When it came to the match, however, he played like an angry mob. There was plenty of commitment alright but no control, plenty of gesticulating but no organising. He embodied the caricature that so many people had expected of this Maradona team. He completely abandoned his defensive responsibilities and failed to link up with any of his teammates, be it the midfielders or the attack. He bottled it so badly that even though Argentina were chasing the game, it would have been preferable to have hauled him off and put someone else in midfield. The failure was not a question of tactics, it was the personnel: Tevez had a job to do and all he did was a Steven Gerrard impression.

There have been many soothing words for Messi, too, and we aren’t going to pillory him either for the failures of the entire team. He could have done much better, though. Again we back Maradona’s plan: it wasn’t foolproof by any means but with all the pieces working in sync it could well have made the most of Messi’s ability. He was let down by Tevez in particular, as Carlitos was in the team primarily to associate with him and generate play.

Without the help of his teammates, far from being the Messi of Barcelona, Messi just ended up looking like a poor man’s Xavi in a team of Ibrahimobitches. His influence was diluted successively until it disappeared completely. Argentina looked as naive as Arsenal in the 2009 semifinal and they were torn apart. This time Otamendi starred as the unfortunate Kieron Gibbs, Muller as Ronaldo.

Yet, like Tevez, Messi cannot be absolved so easily of all responsibility to organise things. Maradona’s rhetoric may overstep the mark in terms of his demands for Messi to ‘become a man’, but he really is going to have to impose himself more in future. A measure of how ineffective he was is revealed by a factoid we read that he wasn’t fouled once in the entire game.

Pegamequemegusta giddily hoped after the first round that Messi would continue to hit the post with Higuaín & co. knocking in the rebounds so that he’d keep tilting towards goal for the full 90 minutes of every game. In hindsight, though, we can’t help but feel the lack of a goal just pissed him off and drained his confidence.

Higuaín was just hopeless on Saturday. Of course he didn’t get much service and the Germans defended surprisingly well. Still, his match was summed up by being caught offside three times in about five minutes. He looked distraught when it was still one-nil and there was half an hour to go. If Tevez lived up to his own caricature as a headless chicken, Higuaín could well have had a River crest on his jersey, so gutless was his performance.

With Tevez, Di María and Higuaín all performing so badly and with such a lack of discipline, Maradona’s plan imploded spectacularly on Saturday. Despite, as Jonathan Wilson says in his Sports Illustrated article, Argentina looking the more ‘threatening team’ after the opening 20 minutes or so, they didn’t create one decent chance. On Off the Ball tonight, he expanded on why Argentina’s approach should work, saying, in characteristic fashion, that “triangles always beat lines”. The only two times we remember the forwards actually making those angles they created two half-chances: the first when Messi put Tevez through; the second when Higuaín was caught offside. This was supposed to be Argentina’s great strength but they individuals failed spectacularly. They were impatient from the off. Frustrated with their own ineptitude, it wasn’t long before they began shooting lamely over the bar from 25 yards. A strike force that had promised to slice the German defence in a manner reminiscent of a mathematician’s wet dream, ended up looking but full of high sentence and more than little obtuse.

Argentina v Germany – Maradona, Di María and Savaging the German Sausage

Pegamequemegusta has been amazed by how judiciously Diego has used his squad so far. Maybe that’s overstating it: we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of mad, panicky decisions such as those that characterised the farcical qualification campaign, or England’s World Cup. He’s betted heavily on Di María – it should’ve been safe enough – and seems determined to see it out.

Much as Del Bosque with Torres, however, the question appears to be whether he can afford to wait and see if this potential game-changer and game-winner will come into form in time. He assured us yesterday that Di María is fulfilling all his duties and is “ready to explode”. If he doesn’t, though, and keeps on failing to impose himself on games, one of Maradona’s most astute choices could well end up scuppering his World Cup dream earlier than expected.

Regular visitors to pegamequemegusta will be familiar with the regular exalting of violence, machismo and a total disregard for the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Nonetheless, even we were disgusted with the downright scaldy behaviour of a Brazilian journalist in Wednesday’s press conference with Javier Pastore and Diego Pozo (the third-choice ‘keeper). “So you’ve had Mexican burritos,” the filthy bugger began, “but how are you going to deal with the German sausage?” Pozo said something in Pastore’s ear and a bit of a hubbub began to develop as the other journalists there expressed their distaste. The provocation was not taken up and the cheeky Brazilian was left muttering something unintelligible about how his homeland’s feijoada was the toughest dish of all to get down.

It was quite funny but pretty insulting, especially as he wasn’t exactly dealing with two heavyweights. Yet in any case, it reminded us how those nasty burritos had stuck in our craw last Sunday. A nasty case of heartburn came upon us as images of the game came flooding back as if our mind were a hastily constructed apartment in the jerk, sorry, ‘commuter’ belt.

Besides the endless montages we’ve been subjected to over the last few days that unfailingly culminate in Carlitos’s onion bag rippler, we can’t help remembering the look on Di María’s face as he slowly got off the ground after about two minutes with a panic-stricken look we well recall from the first time pegamequemegusta tried to buy shoes over here and realised all the sizes were different; we remember how it took all of three minutes for Heinze to start hitting the ball over the top such were the lack of options in midfield; how Messi’s shoulders slumped so as the ball appeared to grow smaller and smaller in the second half, as if it were but vaguely reminiscent of a toy he had once enjoyed as a child. Thinking of all the possession Mexico enjoyed, the free-run they had in midfield and the fact that only their own stubborn insistence on shooting from distance meant they didn’t create more chances, we struggle to come up with quick solutions for what will inevitably occur in pegamequemegusta’s underpants on Saturday morning if the same situations repeat themselves against ze Germans.

2 v 11?

Nonetheless, our habitual incontinence aside, we’ve been pretty sore this week at some of the less smart criticism of Argentina. The increasingly farcical Lothar Matthaus, for example, upset that Beckenbauer and an octopus have been stealing all the punditry limelight offered his two cents in the last few hours:

“Maradona doesn’t have a clear idea of how he wants the team to play; he hasn’t got a system [we’re translating fromt he Spanish here; presume these quotes are accurate]. He puts all his trust in the skill of certain individuals. I don’t think that’s enough against a German team that’s full of self-confidence, enjoys playing and under less pressure than Argentina.”

Dunphy, too, spoke on Newstalk’s World Cup Daily about Argentina v Germany basically being 2 v 11, seeing as Argentina depend far too much on Messi and Tevez.

Both very questionable views. First of all, it’s a rather facile, churlish argument: obviously if you have players like Messi and Tevez in your team you would do well to get the ball to them as often as possible. Even if the squad had been selected with a little more coherency, one wonders what they’d say. Would they be calling out for Tevez be be replaced by Cambiasso and Argentina be a ‘proper team’ that seeks to attack with Zanetti to push forward down one of the flanks to link up with Messi, Capello-style? Would they be insisting on Riquelme or, God forbid, Lucho González, to play as a classic number 10 and try to ‘play in’ Messi and Higuaín?

Pegamequemegusta doesn’t get the argument. After all, the tactic has not just been, as many have said, just to ‘give the ball to Messi’. Neither has the ‘clueless’ Maradona just asked Messi how he wants things done and set up the rest as he sees fit. There’s a considerable difference between giving him a ‘free’ role and just sitting back and hoping to Christ he’ll resolve all your problems.

Rather, Argentina in this World Cup have tried to implement quite a sophisticated system that aims to make the most out of Messi’s gifts precisely by surrounding him with plenty of options to give and receive the ball. It’s obvious that while Messi is devastating in one on ones – hell, one on threes – you can get a lot more out of him in his general play if you keep him involved: by bringing Messi into the game he’ll inevitably bring others into the game, too. Over-dependence? It’s the only bloody way!

Maradona hasn’t been so boorish either that he’s just told his players to ‘do what Barcelona do’ in order to get the best out of Messi, to vainly try to imitate their play but with the passion the jersey requires. Again, no matter who’s in the squad that wouldn’t be possible. They just don’t have the players. Argentina don’t have Xavi or Iniesta to orchestrate so they’ve tried to create similar associations between the attackers right across the front of the attack. Of course a lot is left to the individuals once the ball is in play but this is what having good players is all about. It’s also eminently smart and ballsy when you know that you just haven’t got the resources to line up with a back line and midfield that’s both as solid as a pegamequemegusta’s biceps and as bamboozling as pegamequemegusta’s trousers. It’s classic Maradona: an impressive mix of pragmatism and inspiration.

Carlitos Tevez

It’s quite interesting in this respect to think back to the travails of Carlitos Tevez over the last three seasons in English football. He had his ups and downs with United, yet even when he was lamenting the lack of goals in his game he found some solace in the fact that he had improved more in terms of his all-round game. There was a good interview in September 2008 before Argentina played Paraguay in Buenos Aires where he recognised that while he was no longer Carlitos the goal machine, he had at least learned to play all across the front line. Indeed, in August he had won the player of the month playing almost exclusively as a number 10, a responsibility he took upon himself given the lack of creativity in United’s midfield at the time.

He was sent off in that match against Paraguay, his second expulsion in two games, and for the rest of the season he lost his place to the new signing, Berbatov. Even when the goals came back with City this year, he was full of self-criticism, admitting in December that he no longer deserved his place and that he would have to fight to win it back. Despite what is often said about his approach to training, he hired himself his own fitness coach to keep his weight down and dedicated himself to getting into the Argentina team.

Pegamequemegusta is certain that Maradona genuinely didn’t know how he was going to line up the team against Nigeria until he saw the group of beasts he had at his disposal in Buenos Aires in May. He tends to say that the idea was ‘knocking round my head’ for a while but circumstances never allowed him to unleash it. It’s irrelevant now anyway: the fact is that it was the inclusion of Tevez more than anyone else that has changed the face of this team and allowed it to play the way it does. We’d go so far as to say that no-one else (in the world?) could do the same job. Pressure up the field, penetration down both wings, quick passing and thinking, power, tackling in midfield and goals. That’s what Maradona’s team is. Give the ball to Messi? Watch the bloody matches.

Di María

Another crucial piece in Diego’s plan – which is rather un-Bilardiano, too, but we don’t want to get into the cheap ‘Maradona is a puppet’ argument right now – that contradicts any supposed dependence on Messi, is Ángel Di María. Unlike Tevez, who only received two one-match bans for his red cards in the qualifiers, Di María got a four-match ban for violent conduct after being sent off against Bolivia in the infamous 6-1 defeat in La Paz. Therefore it took until the Germany friendly last March for us to really see him take another team apart cutting in from the left. In that game, Argentina played a stodgy enough 4-4-2 where Messi was more or less isolated, but the few times he burst towards the German box he left their defenders in the kind of positions that would otherwise only occur to a particularly twisted porno director.  He also put Higuaín through for his goal. Check out this nutmeg from that night:

You will no doubt have noticed, oh dear handsome readers, that in that clip he pops up on the right. This is what we meant earlier by Maradona’s aim to create rolling associations across the entire front of attack. Unlike Tevez and Higuaín, who could in theory be replaced, Di María is unique in this squad. His particular characteristics and package of skills makes José’s new man exceptional in the group. If he plays well, he can widen the angle of attack, pin back the opposing full back, dribble past anyone almost as well as Messi, is good in the air and has a decent shot on him as he showed over and over for Benfica last season.

Grand, we know he’s good. The delectably clever part of his inclusion, however, where another manager might have deemed three attackers quite sufficient, is that his role has deliberately been conceived to profit from the other team’s preoccupation with Messi. With both on the pitch, never mind whatever Tevez and Higuaín are up to, one should always be able to function as a decoy for the other. It’s pass and run, it’s constant domination, constant attack and it’s sass-tastic. Maradona’s smart.

Unfortunately, the young man from Rosario (though he’s a Central man, whereas Leo’s from Newell’s) has played prett-ty poorly so far. We mentioned earlier the expression on his face right at the start of the Mexico match and in general Di María’s looked about as convinced of his own ability as pegamequemegusta does when the missus sends us out to do our Princess Leia impression down on Mardel’s main street. He has had so little interaction with his teammates that at times he seems to be hiding from the ball. And it’s not just because the rest of the team only pass the ball to Messi, when he wants it he comes looking for it, as is made clear in the clip above. It took him 25 minutes to play a one-two against Mexico. Even Heinze showed more of an inclination towards getting forward.

From half-time in the very first match it was clear that things weren’t going right for Di María. Maradona went straight out on to the pitch to meet him before he came off to put an arm around him, so anonymous had he been. He improved somewhat against Korea but he was still a long way from his true level.

Maradona puts an arm round Ángel Di María at half-time in the Nigeria game. It was clear from the start.

Pegamequemegusta has been genuinely amazed by how judiciously Diego has used his squad so far. Maybe that’s overstating it: we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of mad, panicky decisions such as those that characterised the farcical qualification campaign, or England’s World Cup. He’s betted heavily on Di María – it should’ve been safe enough – and seems determined to see it out.

Much as Del Bosque with Torres, however, the question appears to be whether he can afford to wait and see if this potential game-changer and game-winner will come into form in time. He assured us yesterday that Di María is fulfilling all his duties and is “ready to explode”. If he doesn’t, though, and keeps on failing to impose himself on games, one of Maradona’s most astute choices could well end up scuppering his World Cup dream earlier than expected.

Karma

It would be a terrible shame in our opinion, not just because we live here, love the team and desperately want him to do well, but because it was the right decision. After everything Maradona did wrong, it would be a right kick in the balls to see him punished for one of the things he got right. Speaking of one of those things he got wrong, of course Argentina would have more options to replace him had he included Cambiasso and Zanetti in the squad in the first place. If Palermo and Garcé weren’t there, and Di María was dropped, we could have a tougher, more solid team to face Germany. As it is, the team are effectively carrying an AWOL Di María and despite their affection for him almost everyone is calling for him to go. The latest poll on Olé tonight tonight show that were the people in charge he’d lose his place to Pastore (and Demichelis to Burdisso, obviously), a fine, nay scintillating, prospect but totally unproven at this level.

Although the Mexico game didn’t work out perfectly by any means, pegamequemegusta, like Maradona, was hoping for Di María to come good in that game too. Hence our excited exclamation before that game to the effect that the Argentina manager had got everything right so far. If he does stick with the same set-up and there’s a repeat of the possession-ceding, effectively ten-man Argentina against Germany, it’s unlikely they will get away with it a second time.

Some would say it’s karma, they’d agree with Dunphy that Diego’s Argentina were always “a disaster waiting to happen”. Pegamequemegusta reckons that’s harsh though. While we’ve always diasgreed with the initial squad selection and feared it would come back to haunt him, in general we feel focusing solely on that aspect and criticising the team for apparently being overly-dependent on Messi and Tevez betrays an ignorance of what Argentina have done so far and what they’ve been trying to do. We’re still not used to saying it, but all we can do now is trust in Diego to savage the German sausage.