Football: Argentina feeling 100 per cent

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The Independent Online
ARGENTINA BEAT Croatia here yesterday to win Group H to go through to the last 16 with a 100 per cent record. Croatia finished second in the group.

Twenty years and one day after their then captain, Daniel Passarella, hoisted the World Cup in Buenos Aires, yesterday's victory set up the potential for a game against England in the second round reminiscent of the renowned 1986 match in Mexico in which Diego Maradona beat England with one flash of brilliance and one of cunning. Although he had help from "The Hand of God" for one goal, there was no denying the brilliance of the run that led to the other.

Fans who had hoped to see Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta add to his top scorer tally of four goals, or to see Croatia's Davor Suker add to his two, were disappointed. But the two nations, in both of which football was started in the 1860s by Englishmen - an industrialist in Croatia and English sailors in Argentina - showed football had come a long way since then.

Passarella - now national team coach and nicknamed "El Kaiser" in Argentina - surprised Croatia with four changes in their starting line-up that showed the depth of their midfield strength.

Hector Pineda, starting in the midfield role usually played by the regular captain, Diego Simeone, scored the winner in the 36th minute, moving on to a lobbed pass from Ariel Ortega, bringing it down on his chest and crashing a left-foot volley inside goalkeeper Drazen Ladic's right-hand post.

The move had been started by another newcomer, Marcelo Gallardo, who started in place of Claudio Lopez. Passarella further confounded the Croatians by bringing on Simeone and Lopez for the second half.

The Croatian coach, Miroslav Blazevic, left no doubt that he was not content with second-place in the group - he had always said he would prefer to play England than Romania in the next round - by bringing on striker Goran Vlaovic of Valencia at half-time to replace midfielder Silvio Maric.

But the gamble by Passarella, making four changes from the team that crushed Jamaica 5-0 in Paris, paid off. Pineda always looked dangerous coming down the left flank and Pablo Paz, brought in for Jose Chamot because Chamot already had a yellow card hovering over him, made several dangerous runs down the right.

Three players were booked on each side, including Croatia's Zvonimir Soldo of VfB Stuttgart, who, with a yellow card already in the bag, will miss the next game. The defender earned his booking for body-checking Ortega just outside the box when the Valencia midfielder was moving into a scoring position. Croatia will miss Soldo's experience in the next match, especially if - as seemed likely - it is the fast and mobile Romanians they face.

Gallardo from the River Plate club was the midfield driving force throughout the first half, combining well with Juan Veron and Ortega. Passarella took Ortega off shortly after half-time, apparently to rest him, and brought on Lopez.

Gallardo had a clear-cut chance to score in the 19th minute, when he sneaked behind his defender in the penalty area, but his attempt at a spectacular bicycle kick only ended with a miskick.

Real Madrid's Suker, although out of favour at his Spanish club, has performed well for his country and came close to opening the scoring in the second minute when he moved onto a long ball from midfield, looping a header from just inside the box which beat Argentina keeper Carlos Roa but dropped onto the roof of the net.

Milan's Zvonimir Boban, back in the side after an on-off back injury which had kept him out of the World Cup so far, rarely made any impression in the first half. He only once showed his skill, beating two defenders on a long run down the left, but hit the ball far too high when he attempted a looping side-foot shot to the far corner.

Simeone, unleashed by Passarella in the 69th minute, came close to making it 2-0 with 12 minutes of the game remaining when he took a pass from Juan Verson, swivelled in the box and hit a right-foot shot which Ladic just managed to save.

But Gallardo was the revelation of the day, involved in most Argentinian moves until he was replaced by club-mate Sergio Berti with eight minutes left. Gallardo might have scored 10 minutes earlier when he shrugged off two challenges, beat a third defender but, having done the part, he shot wide.

ARGENTINA (5-4-1): Roa (Mallorca); Paz (Tenerife), Vivas (Lugano), Ayala (Naples), Zanetti (Internazionale), Pineda (Udinese); Ortega (Valencia), Veron (Sampdoria Genoa), Gallardo (River Plate), Almeyda (Lazioe); Batistuta (Fiorentina). Substitutes: Lopez (Valencia) for Ortega, 54; Simeone (Internazionale) for Zanetti, 69; Berti (River Plate) for Gallardo, 82

CROATIA (4-5-1): Ladic (Croatia Zagreb); Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Jarni (Betis Seville), Simic (Croatia Zagreb), Bilic (Everton); Boban (Milan), Maric (Croatia Zagreb), Stanc (Parma), Asanovic (Naples), Prosinecki (Croatia Zagreb); Suker (Real Madrid). Substitutes: Stimac (Derby County) for Prosinecki, 69; Vlaovic (Valencia) for Maric, h-t.

Referee: S Belquola (Morocco).