At the risk of suggesting rather more expertise in these matters than is evident from cheques made out to bookmakers, I saw the issue narrowing down probably to whether England's goalkeeper would be successful in repelling the efforts of Diego Maradona, who was then unquestionably the world's greatest player.
Doubtless, members of that England team will be seen and heard addressing the events of 1986 before Tuesday's match in St Etienne, paying inevitable attention to Maradona's infamous "Hand of God" goal - as it happens, Peter Shilton was not entirely blameless - and the devastating dribble that brought him another.
Just a short while ago I went over this with Terry Fenwick, one of the defenders Maradona left in his wake before wrong-footing Shilton. "I was devastated at the time," Fenwick said, "but looking back I'm glad Maradona scored such a brilliant second goal, because it would be rotten to think that the little bastard cheated us out of a place in the semi-finals."
Even so, Argentina would have seen it as divine recompense for the injustice of 1966 when their captain, Antonio Rattin, was sent off by a fussy German referee in a quarter- final against England at Wembley. "If Rattin had stayed on the field Argentina might have beaten us," Nobby Stiles has said. "They were the best team we came up against, no argument, but they spoiled themselves by turning nasty."
The 1962 finals in Chile began so violently - more than 40 players were injured after only a week's play, three with broken legs - that England approached a group game against Argentina in Rancagua with some apprehension. All 16 coaches had already been summoned to appear before the World Cup Organising Committee, who threatened to expel teams from the tournament unless there was a marked improvement in behaviour. "Nobody could point a finger at us," England's then captain Johnny Haynes said recently, "but Argentina had been involved in a rough match and we feared the worst."
Argentina, who lost 3-1, in fact, proved placid, probably due to the respect their coach, Juan Carlos Lorenzo, had for England's decent manager, Walter Winterbottom, after coming under his tuition on coaching courses at Lilleshall. Later, Lorenzo was in charge of Atletico Madrid when three of their players were sent off against Celtic at Parkhead and had control of the Lazio players who attacked Arsenal outside a restaurant in Rome.
Since Argentina's present coach, Daniel Passarella, was described as the dirtiest great player in history when a member of the team that won the 1978 World Cup in his homeland, it can be assumed that the importance of disputing possession is not overlooked in preparation.
Passarella is undemonstrative but insistent on a style of play that has taken Argentina away from a tradition of running with the ball and mainly short passing. Reports reaching the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, confirm televised evidence that his team will be required to deal with a greater variety of threat than they have so far faced.
Considering the anxiety that had grown up since defeat by Romania in Toulouse last week England's performance in brushing Colombia aside in Lens will have done a great deal for their confidence, although Hoddle was wise to stress that things are best kept in proportion.
The truth is that Colombia have made no impression here, their morale weakened by strife within the squad, Tino Asprilla's expulsion, a general disenchantment with tactics and further proof that Carlos Valderrama is an utterly spent force.
A fault in some quarters of my trade and across the airwaves is to go from extreme to extreme in assessment. England improved greatly on their performance against Romania, but it was a lot easier to wrest the ball from opponents who are naturally self-indulgent.
Only Farid Mondragon's brave and expert goalkeeping prevented England from at least doubling the score. Nevertheless, Hoddle was given plenty of opportunity for admonishment. England lost concentration in the second half and fresh evidence of defensive misunderstanding came when Hamilton Ricard slipped three defenders to send in a shot that went just wide with David Seaman stranded.
The thoughts now are of Gabriel Batistuta, Ariel Ortega and Juan Veron, thoughts that may make untroubled sleep hard for England to come by.Reuse content