Football: World Cup: Batistuta battering ram fells Japan

Argentina 1 Batistuta 28 Japan 0 Att: 33,400
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The Independent Online
ONCE DESCRIBED as the dirtiest great player in football history, Argentina's coach, Daniel Passarella, is never likely to draw up a curriculum that does not stress the importance of disputing possession.

Argentina have displayed enough hardness down the years, a policy of provocation. However, the most significant feature of the line up Passarella has put together while laying down stringent rules about turn out and personal behaviour, is the emphasis on technical gifts and collective cunning.

It remains to be seen whether this team will prove a force at France 98 but their performance against Japan here yesterday suggested a genuine potential. The defence looked firm until unsettled late in the second half by Roberto Sensini's departure with a hand injury, the midfield appeared well organised and Passarella is not short of alert, lively attackers.

Argentina had too much variety for Japan who, lacking experience at this level, cannot possibly aspire to a greater feat than qualification for the second round. Nevertheless, Japan were never entirely out of it, making Argentina work hard for the ball and causing them occasional frights, especially in the last 15 minutes following Sensini's gloomy trudge to the touchline.

Indeed, Eisuke Nakanishi's dart between two hesitant defenders caused all sorts of trouble, leading to a shot from Wagner Lopes that was only just blocked for a corner. Since a header across goal by Yutaka Akita a few moments earlier fell only just short of Naoki Soma's lunge, there was a suggestion that Argentina are not as composed under pressure as Passarella would like.

Sensini is unquestionably a key figure, his excellent positional play and timely interventions so important that his loss for more than one match could prove serious.

A feature of these finals so far has been the speed with which attacks have been launched by runners with the ball whose first thought is to carry it at an opponent or into the space they see before them. This was evident again in Toulouse, where both teams had men with ability and the instinct to get forward quickly with the ball at their feet.

Argentina's biggest advantage was the confidence to attack with variety, attempting all the options: sometimes going wide, never reluctant to strike the long early pass. They went ahead in the 28th minute from a move more characteristic of South American football.

Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta combined to open up the centre of Japan's defence and when a mis-kicked clearance fell into his stride Batistuta fired Argentina ahead from close range. Relaxed by this success Argentina found a lot less difficulty in establishing midfield control and threatened to take the game over.

Japan's goal almost fell again when Diego Simeone's centre from the left went from Batistuta's head on to the inside of Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi's left-hand post before rebounding to Ortega, whose diving attempt at conversion ended up in the goalkeeper's arms.

With the tall Juan Veron becoming more and more an influence there was little then to suggest that Japan were capable of shocking the two times world champions. Most of Japan's attacks petered out on the edge of Argentina's penalty area and it became clear that an amendment to their strategy was called for.

Put into effect at half-time it involved getting more players forward in timely support of the strikers who had been too often left isolated and outnumbered. But it is only when Sensini went off clutching his left wrist to be replaced by Jose Chamot in the 72nd minute that things started to look up for Japan.

First, though, there was another alarm for Japan when a free-kick ricocheted in their goalmouth before Kawaguchi rescued the ball from the feet of the substitute, Abel Balbo.

Shortly afterwards a cross-field pass opened up the right side of Argentina's defence and Akira Narahashi moved on to it to fire just wide of an upright.

ARGENTINA (4-4-2): Roa (Mallorca); Ayala (Napoli), Sensini (Parma), Zanetti (Internazionale), Vivas (Lugano); Almeyda (Lazio), Simeone (Inter), Veron (Sampdoria), Ortega; Lopez (both Valencia), Batistuta (Fiorentina). Substitutes: Balbo (Roma) for Lopez, 61; Chamot (Lazio) for Sensini, 72.

JAPAN (3-4-1-2): Kawaguchi (Yokohama Marinos); Narahashi (Kashima Antlers), Ihara (Yokohama Marinos), Nakanishi (JEF Utd Ichihara); Akita, Soma (both Kashima Antlers), Nanami (Jubilo Iwata), Nakata (Bellmare Hiratsuka); Yamaguchi (Yokohama Flugels); Jo (Yokohama Marinos), Nakayama (Jubilo Iwata). Substitutes: Lopes (Bellmare Hiratsuka) for Nakayama, 65; Harano (Nagoya Grampus Eight) for Soma, 84.

Referee: M Van der Ende (Neth).

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