FOOTBALL: Pekerman restores panache of champions to Argentina

IT MAY have taken a late equaliser by Hernan Crespo to earn Argentina a 2-2 draw, but their performance in Wednesday night's friendly here against Germany underlined their status as one of the favourites to lift the game's ultimate prize in 2006. Less than three years after their disappointing performance in the 2002 World Cup, the global champions of 1978 and 1986 appear to be back in business.

The world rankings published by Fifa, the game's international governing body, show Argentina behind Brazil and, bizarrely, France. On present form, however, a case can be made for the Albicelestes as the world's outstanding team, despite their loss to Brazil in last year's Copa America final. Olympic champions last summer, Argentina head the South American World Cup qualifying competition and took on Jurgen Klinsmann's resurgent German team here with all the confidence and panache which had deserted them.

Coaching Argentina is never straightforward, but Jose Pekerman appears to have what it takes following his appointment to succeed Marcelo Bielsa, who surprisingly resigned shortly after his team's Athens triumph. Having made it the hard way as a coach, working with junior teams at club level after his career as a journeyman midfielder was ended by injury, Pekerman, 55, led Argentina to three Under-21 world championships.

Some of the old guard have been pensioned off, with the 2002 World Cup captain, Juan Sebastian Veron, the most notable victim. Crespo, rediscovering his striking form with Milan after in-and-out seasons with Internazionale and Chelsea, was recalled here for his first international since June and responded with a masterful display, his late lob over Jens Lehmann preserving Pekerman's unbeaten record in his five games in charge.

"It was an excellent match between two teams who wanted to win," Pekerman said. "A match like this is very useful for the future." The coach had particular praise for his playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme, and for Crespo, who scored Argentina's first equaliser from the penalty spot. "Crespo was effective, but he also knows how to play for the team, working hard, and he did that here."

One of the keys to the recent success is the excellence of the 26-year- old Riquelme, who was given few opportunities by Bielsa. Pekerman has placed his faith in the Villarreal midfielder, whose form alongside his international colleague, Juan Pablo Sorin, has taken the unfashionable Spanish club into the upper reaches of La Liga.

One major nettle Pekerman must grasp is what to do with Carlos Tevez, the outstanding player at the Olympics, who joined Brazilian club Corinthians from Boca Juniors last year for $18m (pounds 9.7m). Saddled with the burden of being labelled "the next Maradona", Tevez has rarely been out of the news as a result of his colourful private life. Tevez, 21, expressed public disappointment when Pekerman dropped him last year and was not in the squad here.

The formidable line-up of Argentinians earning their living in Europe gives hope for the World Cup, but Pekerman said: "We need this generation of new players to understand that the senior team have not won anything for years. We must ratify all that with results, because that is what counts."

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