Failure, feuds and former hero fuels Argentina's insecurity

They have reached three major finals in the last three years but, as Glenn Moore reports, the pressure is building on coach Jose Pekerman
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The Independent Football

When we left them, or, rather, when they left us, in Japan in 2002, they were distraught. Argentina, pre-tournament favourites, standard-bearers for a country in economic meltdown, were not only on their way out of the Word Cup at the group stage but had also suffered the humiliation of losing to England, the national bête noire.

Three years on Argentina have reached three major finals. Last year their Under-23 side, with enough over-age players to be an approximation of the first-team squad, won Olympic gold. A few months earlier they reached the final of the Copa America, the South American championship, outplayed Brazil, but lost on penalties after Adriano snatched a late equaliser. This summer they reached the 2005 Confederations Cup final, again losing to Brazil. In between they became the first South American team to qualify for the World Cup, humbling Brazil in the process. They have enough talent to omit Aimar, the Valencia playmaker, and a rejuvenated Juan Sebastian Veron, from their squad.

England, who last reached a final in 1966, would envy such a record. So why, as they prepare to face England in Geneva today, are Argentina worried about next summer's World Cup and why is the coach Jose Pekerman wondering if he'll even make it to Germany?

Pekerman's problems are three-fold. A former coach of Argentina's successful youth teams and national team manager (more an administrative role) he only took charge 14 months ago following the unexpected resignation of Marcelo Bielsa. This was after the Olympic triumph and near-miss in the Copa America. He thus had less credit in the bank when, as has happened this season, Argentina's form began to slip. Compounding this, and fuelling his insecurity, is the Diego Maradona factor. The rehabilitation of the most revered footballer in Argentina has taken an ominous turn for Pekerman.

Earlier this month, to mark Maradona's 45th birthday and hitch a ride on his reconditioned bandwagon, Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentine FA, suggested that a role could be found for Maradona with the national team. He indicated that this could lead to Maradona becoming coach after the World Cup. The legend responded enthusiastically but stressed that he would not settle "for a merely symbolic role" but wanted "to make decisions on players".

Maradona added: "I would like to have the chance to discuss with Pekerman why he chooses some players and why he doesn't choose others. We can work together, but we must both agree on who should be in the squad. I think that something is missing in the national team and I think that Pekerman hasn't noticed."

That something, it became clear, was Veron whose continued exclusion from the Albiceleste is a subject of growing debate, within and without the squad. Maradona touched a nerve when he said that he wanted him back. "He deserves a chance," said Maradona. "He can clarify the game with one pass, one switch of play from one flank to the other. He can put a striker clean through on goal. He's playing well and we don't have many like him."

But just as Pekerman began to appear a lame duck Maradona pulled out. "I don't think it's the best moment to join the team," he said on Thursday. "I want to make it clear that I don't want to get in anyone's way."

So Pekerman remains in sole charge for today's game. But while Maradona may have slimmed down dramatically, the World Cup winner's presence in the Argentine game remains huge and the issue is likely to resurface if results do not improve. Thus for Pekerman today's match is vital.

He goes into the game without Lionel Messi, "the Argentine Rooney", because the Barcelona teenager is suspended after being dismissed in Argentina's last friendly. He is also without Gabriel Heinze, the Manchester United left-back, and Javier Mascherano, the powerful midfielder courted by Arsenal prior to his joining the big-spending Corinthians of Brazil. Both are injured and are not expected back before late spring. Mascherano's understudy is Bayern Munich's Martin Demichelis who had such a fine game against Juventus recently.

Heinze's position has been filled by Juan Pablo Sorin. This has become an issue as Sorin, who has worked his way through a string of clubs since Sapporo, has not only been made captain but is believed to head a group of senior players who do not want Veron recalled.

Hernan Crespo, however, is a Veron fan having successfully played alongside him at Parma and Lazio. "We've gone from having a certain pause in our play to now being slow," he said of the current side. "We're not able to finish off the moves. We're trying to walk the ball in."

This has been interpreted as a reference to the emphasis, under Pekerman, on the role of Juan Roman Riquelme, an old-fashioned strolling playmaker of the type rarely indulged by the English national team (think Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Matt Le Tissier, etc) but traditionally at the heart of the Argentine one. He is, says the Spanish-based Anglo-Argentine writer John Carlin, "An incredibly talented player who for some reason didn't make it at Barcelona but is playing really well at Villarreal. Veron, meanwhile, was very poor when it mattered in Japan."

But Riquelme's inclusion, says Tim Vickery, a South American-based journalist for the BBC and World Soccer, is not just affecting the attack. "They have gone off the boil since qualifying and are reconsidering both personnel and tactics after the defence was exposed in the Confederations Cup," he says. "They defend deeper under Pekerman than under Bielsa to provide space for Riquelme to run the game. But that also provides room for the opposition, especially on the flanks, and Cicinho [Brazil's attacking left-back] hurt them in Germany."

Another weakness is a lack of goals. When, in June, they scored three goals in the opening 40 minutes against Brazil to secure World Cup qualification Argentina seemed irrepressible. In the remaining 320 minutes of the campaign they managed two goals - a penalty and an own goal - both at home to Peru. True qualification was not at stake, but the last tie was against historic rivals Uruguay so motivation should not have been lacking.

The blame cannot all be laid at the twinkly feet of Riquelme but Crespo, who remains more out than in the Chelsea team, has little competition at centre-forward, as the reappearance on the international scene of Julio Cruz (see panel, right) has underlined.

The great hope is Lionel Messi. "He really might be the new Maradona," says Vickery. "He gives them that individual talent that is more usually seen in Brazilian teams." Carlin agrees: "I don't know where they would play him, but they must play him." Pekerman will find a way. "He's phenomenal, a jewel," the coach said.

But Messi will not be able to rescue Pekerman today. He is instead dependent on a divided team to be able to lift themselves against the old enemy. England may be just the challenge Argentina need. Or will Diego Maradona be receiving another telephone call from Grondona tomorrow morning?

Argentina 0 England 1, June 2002 Whatever happened to the defeated Albiceleste?

World Cup finals group stage, Sapporo, Japan, 7 June 2002

* PABLO CAVALLERO

(Celta Vigo) No longer in the national team picture.

* MAURICIO POCHETTINO (Paris St-Germain; now Espanyol) Brought down Michael Owen for David Beckham's decisive penalty. Now 33, he has faded from the scene.

* WALTER SAMUEL

(Roma; now Internazionale) 'The Wall' is showing signs of age. Moved to Real Madrid in 2004 but failed to settle.

* DIEGO PLACENTE

(Bayer Leverkusen; now Celta Vigo) Reached 2003 European Cup final. Joined Vigo this summer. Still in the squad.

* JAVIER ZANETTI (Internazionale) Still a classy defender, should win his 100th cap in Geneva. Completes a decade at Inter this season.

* DIEGO SIMEONE

(Lazio; now Atletico Madrid) Playing in same city as - and still attempting to wind up - Beckham. Now 35 and retired from national team.

* JUAN PABLO SORIN

(Cruzeiro; now Villarreal) Despite playing for Lazio, Barcelona, Cruzeiro, Paris St-Germain and, now, Villarreal since Sapporo, has remained in the frame.

* JUAN SEBASTIAN VERON (Manchester United; now Internazionale) Failed at United and Chelsea, now back in Italy and flourishing, for the most part, anew. But no longer in national team.

* ARIEL ORTEGA

(River Plate; now Newell's Old Boys) Went to Fenerbahce in 2002 but walked out in a dispute which derailed his career. Now 31, drifting in Argentina.

* GABRIEL BATISTUTA (Roma; now retired) Was already living on reputation at Sapporo and, after one more, poor season, 'Batigol' left Italy for the easy pickings of the Gulf. Now 36.

* KILY GONZALEZ

(Valencia; now Internazionale) Still useful but, at 31, no longer a flyer.

SUBSTITUTES

* PABLO AIMAR (Valencia) (Replaced Veron, h-t) Still shining, on and off, but stuck behind Saviola and Riquelme.

* HERNAN CRESPO

(Lazio; now Chelsea) (Replaced Batistuta, 59) Move to Chelsea initially failed but, after a season regaining confidence in Milan, back in favour.

* CLAUDIO LOPEZ (Lazio; now Club America) (Replaced Kily Gonzalez, 65) Left for Mexico in 2004.

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