Argentina 2 Ivory Coast 1: Riquelme inspires ruthless Argentina

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The Independent Football

Before the match, Diego Maradona visited the Argentina dressing room for a rallying cry. If that was an unnerving experience for coach Jose Pekerman, whose job he so blatantly covets, then it was also a reminder to Juan Roman Riquelme of what was expected of him.

The Villarreal midfielder is wearing the sacred number 10 shirt for this tournament. The playmaker shirt. The Maradona shirt. Many have questioned his right to have it. It's a heavy burden. Even after this up-lifting Group C encounter against a wonderfully courageous and talented Ivory Coast, in which the Argentinians erased their bitter memories of four years ago, Pekerman was asked whether Riquelme should be dropped for Lionel Messi.

He answered gracefully - saying no player had a right to automatic selection - but it was a question born of blind prejudice. Riquelme, playing slightly out of position on the left, was the architect of the victory with the precision of his passing and his calmness in possession which was summed up by the impressive Ivorian midfielder Didier Zokora when he said: "They seemed to have so much time on their side." It was Riquelme who gave them that time.

There was also his wicked ability to deliver at set pieces which led to Argentina's first goal - poked in by Chelsea's Hernan Crespo, who had a fine, intelligent game, after his club team-mate Didier Drogba failed to clear. "Matches nowadays are decided by the tiniest things," Riquelme said later. "An error in these matches can put you out of the tournament. Lately, more and more goals are being scored with dead balls."

Emmanuel Eboué, the Ivorian right-back, admitted that he and his team-mates were stunned. "Sitting in the dressing room, we were just thinking about all the chances we'd created and that we'd come away with nothing," he said. "Argentina have that about them, they take the chances they create. They can be put under pressure for 80 minutes, but if they create two or three opportunities in the other 10 minutes, they will take them. That is a ruthlessness we did not have."

His club manager, Arsène Wenger, who was in Hamburg working for French television, identified another problem. The Ivorians in their first World Cup, eager to impress, brimming with enthusiasm, simply forgot to defend at times and were picked off. None of their midfielders, so eye-catching going forward, remembered to bolt the back-door, while in Aboulaye Meite they have a weak link in defence and in Jean-Jacques Tizie an unsure goalkeeper.

"We are young," Eboué said. "We may have players who come from the top European clubs, so we have experience of playing in big club games even as big as the Champions' League final, but we are inexperienced as a team at this level. We are still learning." And Argentina taught them a ruthless lesson. In doing so they also raised their own stock as potential winners of this tournament. They will certainly be hard to beat and were ready for the physical challenge. "They made it so hard for us - they're a good team, full of really tough players," said Manchester United's Gabriel Heinze, who played at centre-half. "People talk of us being candidates to win this tournament. But I'll leave that to them."

Argentina's second goal came after Riquelme threaded a pass through to Javier Saviola. He instantly flicked it beyond Tizie who had earlier fumbled Roberto Ayala's header over the line although that went unpunished. Not that the Ivorians gave up. They created chance after chance. Bonaventure Kalou side-footed wide, Kader Keita wasted a point-blank header and Drogba was perennially profligate. That was until he spun and scored in the dying minutes. But it was too late.

Argentina (4-4-2): Abbondanzieri (Boca Juniors); Burdisso (Internazionale), Ayala (Valencia), Heinze (Manchester United), Sorin (Villarreal); Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid), Cambiasso (Internazionale), Mascherano (Corinthians), Riquelme (Villarreal); Saviola (Seville), Crespo (Chelsea). Substitutes used: Palacio (Boca Juniors) for Crespo (64); Gonzalez (Porto) for Saviola (76); Aimar (Valencia) for Riquelme (90).

Ivory Coast (4-4-2): Tizie (Esperance); Eboué, K Touré (both Arsenal), Meite (Marseilles), Boka (Strasbourg); Akale (Auxerre), Zokora (St Etienne), Y Touré (Olympiakos), Keita (Lille); Kalou (Paris St-Germain), Drogba (Chelsea). Substitutes used: Dindane (Lens) for Kalou (56); B Kone (Nice) for Akale (62); A Kone (PSV Eindhoven) for Keita (77).

Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).

Booked: Argentina Saviola, Heinze, Gonzalez; Ivory Coast Eboué, Drogba.

Man of the match: Riquelme.