Football: Maradona's lay-off ends in play-off

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The Independent Online
DIEGO MARADONA is back, no longer fat, apparently fit, and just in time to give Argentina a hand in their pursuit of the chance to win another World Cup. Perhaps a comeback was inevitable but he could not have expected it to be against Australia and in a play-off for the right to play in the finals next year.

Alfio Basile, Argentina's coach, was impressed enough by Maradona's form in his first two matches for his new Argentinian club, Newell's Old Boys, to name the man who held the trophy aloft seven years ago in his squad for the first leg in Sydney on 31 October.

It is quite a comedown for a former world champion to be on the fringes hoping to make the most of a second chance of qualifying, but it is equally galling for Billy Bingham, who had the satisfaction of sending out a Northern Ireland side to beat the hosts, Spain, in the 1982 finals to have his ambition lowered again to the level at which the most he can do is to offer a helping hand to a neighbour tonight.

'If Spain draw with the Republic in Dublin - a result which I think they are capable of achieving - and we take even a point from the Danes it would send Jack Charlton's squad on their way to next summer's finals,' Bingham said.

He has his captain, Alan McDonald, fit after an ankle injury to take his place at the heart of the defence, and he will name a five-man midfield. However, Denmark, the European champions, are strong favourites to win at home and edge closer to qualification from Group Three, even though defender Kim Christofte is unfit.

Switzerland and France similarly stand on the threshold, but, as the Swiss can vouch, doors can slam shut in your face. Two years ago they were 2-0 up against Scotland, apperently heading for a victory that would them in the European Championship finals. The Scots recovered to draw, leaving the Swiss needing a draw in Romania. They lost 1-0. This time the Swiss go to Portugal knowing that should the worst happen, they could rescue themselves by whipping Estonia in their final Group Two game.

France, whose coach, Gerard Houllier, could link Eric Cantona with Milan's Jean-Pierre Papin and the free-scoring David Ginola in attack, should seal one of the qualifying berths in Group Six with a home win over Israel.

Sweden would virtually secure the other place from the group by beating Finland at home. They will miss out only if they lose their last two games and Bulgaria win both their remaining matches, starting today against Austria in Sofia.

Germany, as defending champions, do not have the bother of qualifying but that creates the problem of honing a team in friendlies, like today's match against Uruguay in Karlsruhe. After a draw against Tunisia and a 2-0 defeat against a Bundesliga select, Berti Vogts, their coach, needs nothing less than a victory. A survey published in a German newspaper on Sunday produced a 51 per cent vote of no confidence in the coach.