Argentina 0 Netherlands 0: Messi and Tevez give tantalising hints of Argentina's potential

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The new World Cup favourites last night eased into the business stage of the competition, their prize for winning Group C being to take on Mexico in a meeting of the Americas on Saturday rather than Portugal the following day, which will be the Netherlands' lot.

Whoever comes through the latter tie might reasonably expect to play England, and Sven Goran Eriksson's squad - assuming they can see off Ecuador - should respect rather than fear a young Dutch side outplayed here until the final quarter of an hour.

The Netherlands have conceded only four goals in their past 14 World Cup matches, though for an hour it was difficult to see how they would come through this game unscathed. Carlos Tevez, 22, and his even younger partner, Lionel Messi, teased them from the start, building on the craft of Juan Roman Riquelme, the tormentor of England's midfield in Geneva last November. Maxi Rodriguez made up a formidable attacking quartet and Edwin van der Sar, equalling Frank de Boer's national record of 112 appearances, needed to be at his best to prevent further addition to Argentina's superior goal difference created by the 6-0 destruction of Serbia & Montenegro.

The only qualification to be borne in mind when considering the sides' prospects was that, with a place in the second round assured, neither coach was prepared to risk losing valuable players to another yellow card. Of the nine facing possible suspension, only the Dutch full-back Khalid Boulahrouz took part. Chelsea's Arjen Robben, scintillating in the opening game, sat it out, giving Feyenoord's prolific Dirk Kuyt his first start but he stuck to the left flank, and with the left-footed Robin van Persie on the right,there was predictability to the Dutch attacks as each winger cut inside.

Ruud van Nistelrooy was anonymous and lasted no longer than 56 minutes as Marco van Basten tried, with some success, to liven up his front line by removing him and the equally ineffective Van Persie. Kuyt, admired by a number of Premiership clubs, had his team's only opportunity of the opening half, and that came after a defensive slip. Nicolas Burdisso, Argentina's right-back, was suffering after a painful goalmouth clash with Van Nistelrooy, and in surrendering possession he allowed Kuyt a shot from an angle that Roberto Abbondanzieri did well to repel. Soon afterwards Burdisso had to come off.

Argentina's Jose Pekerman was clearly thinking the same way as Van Basten in leaving out Gabriel Heinze, Javier Saviola and Hernan Crespo. He possessed much the stronger hand in terms of replacements, bringing in Messi for a first start since being injured in Barcelona's Champions' League tie against Chelsea three months ago and Tevez, at £10.5m the most expensive player ever moved between South American clubs.

Riquelme, operating just behind that pair, set up Tevez to fizz a shot wide, then curled in a low free-kick from the left, causing Boulahrouz to lunge in front of Tevez and deflect the ball against his own post. With Diego Maradona leading the anthems by whirling a blue-and-white striped shirt above his head, the pressure increased along with the noise levels, Rodriguez hitting a stunning half-volley wide from 25 yards.

Argentina opened after the interval with Messi twice figuring in a smooth passing move and playing Riquelme in to drive wide, before Tevez fed Rodriguez, who cut back but shot too high. The Netherlands continued to disappoint. When Van Nistelrooy and Van Persie were called off, the Ajax teenager, Ryan Babel, came on to play down the left, releasing Kuyt into his more natural position down the centre and Denny Landzaat was brought on as a holding midfield player.

The two substitutions improved the Dutch a little and Abbondanzieri had to make his second save of the night, this time from Phillip Cocu, who was winning his 100th cap. But there remained no doubt about which was the more accomplished side. Although Pekerman continues to speak only of his team's "potential", they remain potential world champions.