Football: Revitalised Maradona lifts Argentina

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The Independent Online
Argentina .4

Greece . . 0

DIEGO MARADONA sounded a global warning here yesterday, scoring an exquisite goal and producing a quietly influential performance as Argentina contemptuously brushed aside a Greek team who did nothing to confound predictions that they would be the makeweights of Group D.

Gabriel Batistuta completed his first hat-trick for Argentina with an injury-time penalty after a handling offence by Stratos Apostolakis, but on an afternoon of dark skies and showers his thunder was stolen by the player making only his third competitive appearance in national colours since the final of Italia '90. Moreover, Maradona's goal, his 34th in 89 caps, was his first in anything other than a friendly for seven years.

Boston is known, for culinary reasons, as 'Bean Town'. What the full house here wanted to know was whether Maradona is a has-been.

Captaining the Argentinian side and operating in an advanced midfield role, Maradona certainly looked in good shape, having shed several pounds in the build-up to the finals.

He felt no need to elaborate on his performance afterwards. 'I have nothing to say. I have just proved it on the field,' he said.

Maradona had scarcely touched the ball - even with his hands - before Argentina were ahead with less than two minutes gone. Working the ball swiftly upfield from deep in their own half, and profiting from some unconvincing Greek tackles, they released Batistuta 40 yards from goal.

The hirsute striker charged unchecked into the box, where Thanasis Kolitsidakis came across to cover. Again the challenge was feeble, Batistuta breaking through it before slipping a right-footed shot across Antonis Minou. The lead might have been doubled almost immediately. Abel Balbo played a quickfire one-two with Argentina's other reformed cocaine-user, Claudio Caniggia, but this time the goalkeeper parried his booming drive to safety.

Panayotis Tsalouhidis was the player deputed to shadow Maradona. At 6ft 2in he towered over his opponent, taking only six minutes to commit the first illegal challenge of the tournament on 1990's most fouled player. His second offence, which gave Maradona the opportunity to show that Jurgen Klinsmann has a rival in the Greg Louganis dive-alike stakes, earned a yellow card.

Argentina's second goal came in the final minute of the first half. This time Greece backed off in the face of a strong run by Jose Chamot, who fed Batistuta inside the D. Batistuta feinted to his right before lashing the ball high past Minou.

The Greek manager, Alketas Panagoulias, removed the man- marker from Maradona after the interval, presumably to avoid the risk of a sending-off. While this meant Argentina received fewer free-kicks from the Californian referee, it also gave Maradona the licence to push forward more.

On the hour, he exploited the freedom to devastating effect. Taking Fernando Redondo's pass on the edge of the area, Maradona was confronted by three Greek defenders.

Skipping to his left to make space, he proceeded to curl a stunning shot into the top-right corner of Minou's net.

Argentina's celebrations, on the pitch and in the rainswept stands, spoke volumes for the enduring popularity of their country's prodigal son. Greece, meanwhile, managed only two shots worth the name - one in each half by Dimitris Saravakos - and conformed the poor impression left at Wembley last month.

ARGENTINA (4-2-2-2): Islas (Independiente); Sensini (Parma), Ruggeri (San Lorenzo), Caceres (Real Zaragoza), Chamot (Foggia); Simeone (Seville), Redondo (Real Madrid), Balbo (Roma), Maradona (no club); Caniggia (Roma), Batistuta (Fiorentina). Substitutes: Mancuso (Boca Juniors) for Balbo, 81; Ortega (River Plate) for Maradona, 84.

GREECE (4-4-2): Minou (Apollon); Apostolakis (Panathinaikos), Manolas (AEK Athens), Kolitsidakis (Panathinaikos), Kalitzakis (Panathianikos); Tsalouhidis (Olympiakos), Nioplias (Panathinaikos), Kofides (Aris Salonika), Tsiantakis (Olympiakos); Saravakos (Panathinaikos), Machlas (OFI Crete).

Referee: A A Angeles (United States).

(Photograph omitted)