Make or break for Maradona

They have stellar names on the pitch and their great hero is in the dugout, yet Argentina are on the brink of failure to qualify for the World Cup. Tonight they play a crucial game against Brazil – will it all end in tears?
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The Independent Football

It is not a goal celebration one can ever imagine taking place between an England player and Fabio Capello, and certainly not during a friendly, but Diego Maradona is a very different individual, and his Argentine team in a very different place to Capello's confident England.

Thus the extraordinary scene in Moscow last month. Jesus Datolo, making his international debut, scored within seconds of coming on. The Napoli midfielder ran to the bench and jumped into Maradona's arms. The still-chunky Maradona fell flat onto his back on the running track with Datolo still in his embrace. Datolo, now astride his coach, rocked back and forwards several times before climbing off Maradona, helping him up, then hugging him again. As Datolo finally turned away Maradona punched the air and high-fived his staff. It is well on its way to becoming a YouTube classic.

Why the wild celebrations? Maradona had no peers as a player, but his first year as coach of Argentina has been decidedly patchy. He has won six of eight matches, including victory in France, but has lost half his four 2010 World Cup qualifying ties to leave the albiceleste's prospects in jeopardy. The defeats include a shaming 6-1 loss in Bolivia.

Thus the pressure was on when his squad gathered for the first match of this season in Russia. The possibility of sacking Maradona, "El Diez" to most Argentines, was openly discussed. Signs of progress were needed but Argentina went behind early on. Sergio Aguero – father of Maradona's grandson – led the rally with the first of three goals in 15 minutes. Roman Pavlyuchenko scored a late consolation but Datolo's goal had effectively settled things, thus the celebration.

The question now is whether this confidence boost influences tonight's qualifier against Brazil in Rosario (1.30am, BST). Victory looks imperative. With four rounds remaining in the marathon 90-match round-robin Argentina are hanging on to the fourth automatic qualifying place (fifth means a play-off against a Concacaf team). Ecuador are just two points behind and three other teams are within five points. Argentina's remaining matches include Wednesday's trip to third-placed Paraguay and a closing tie across the River Plate against sixth-placed Uruguay. There is little margin for error if the two-time winners are not to miss out for the first time since 1970.

Unfortunately it is not a good time to play their arch-rivals. In the year since Argentina, under previous manager Alfio Basile, drew the reverse qualifier in Belo Horizonte, exacerbating what seemed a growing crisis around Dunga's management of the selecao, Brazil have regained their lustre.

They have won 13 and drawn three of their subsequent matches, including defeats of Portugal (6-2), Uruguay (4-0 away) and Italy (twice on neutral territory). Their last nine matches have been victories, a run that includes their Confederations Cup success. Dunga, being something of a pragmatist, will never be loved by the Brazilian public, but he is now respected and accepted.

If the performances have not always matched the results Dunga has recourse to enough talented individuals, such as kaka and Robinho, to secure victories. It might have been thought that, with Aguero, Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez to call on the same applies to Maradona, but Argentina lack Brazil's balance. He has a decent core of midfield players, including Javier Mascherano, but with Juan Roman Riquelme refusing to play under Maradona, Juan Sebastian Veron, now 34, is the playmaker.

The real problems are further back. If the inclusion of Newcastle's Fabricio Coloccini in the squad says much the call-up of uncapped 36-year-old Rolando Schiavi, of Newell's Old Boys, screams "crisis", even if he is in the form of his career. There are also problems in goal, Maradona has called up six keepers to date, but none has convinced.

Ten of the current squad play at home, the highest figure for 15 years, which suggests a lack of depth. There are plenty of "No 10s", but fewer options in more prosaic positions. Maradona has cast his net wide calling up 56 players, 29 of whom have one cap or none. However, he does seem to have handicapped himself by ignoring Villarreal defender Gonzalo, Internazionale midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, and Gonzalo Higuain, Real Madrid's top scorer last season. His absence is rumoured to be a consequence of a flirtation with representing France as a teenager, but the recall of 35-year-old battering-ram centre-forward Martin Palermo, last capped a decade ago, suggests Maradona should not be so picky.

Such is the national concern the Argentine Football Association (AFA) has agreed with Maradona's request to move the fixture 300km north from River Plate's Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires, where the pitch has been scarred by concerts, and the atmosphere has been flat for internationals, to Rosario's Gigante de Arroyito. This means 20,000 fewer paying spectators, but as well as being Messi's home city it is a far more intimidating venue, the one where Argentina controversially swamped Peru 6-0 to edge Brazil out of the 1978 World Cup final.

"The stands in River's stadium are 50 metres from the pitch," Maradona said. "You can shout yourself hoarse and the noise only reaches the area behind the goal. There are players who feel that they will get more support in Rosario."

The worry is the players may wilt under the pressure, because there is not just national pride and a place in the World Cup at stake. The whole Argentine football economy needs a lift. Last month the start of the league season was postponed after the players union, for the second time in a decade, went on strike in protest at unpaid wages. They were not alone. Argentine clubs were collectively estimated as owing £33m, only a fifth of which was owed to players. Given the Argentine TV deal was worth just £44m a season (the Premier League's television income is around £600m a season) this was a substantial debt. Clubs like San Lorenzo are so indebted they gave players free transfers in lieu of wages.

To Julio Grondona, the septuagenarian head of the Argentina FA, the solution was simple: ask the television company, TyC, to pay more. When they refused he approached the government. The upshot is that all Argentine league matches are now being shown on state television after the government agreed to pay £100m a season. Meanwhile TyC, who are part of the anti-Government Clarin conglomerate, plan to sue.

Grondona was unrepentant. "If you have a husband who beats you and gives you only 200 pesos to live on all year, and here comes someone who loves you so much that they'll give you whatever you want, who would you go with?" he said, clearly unfazed by the knowledge that it was he who had signed the original deal.

Interlinked with the financial ills are other problems affecting the Argentine game. Hooliganism is rife with many clubs having uncomfortably close relationships with the barras bravas, the hooligan gangs who can make or break club presidents but whose presence drives down attendances. Too many clubs have sold shares in their players to third parties (as in the Tevez affair) limiting their ability to cash in on selling players, or even dictate when they go.

Despite all this Argentine clubs remain a force. Estudiantes, inspired by Veron, are holders of the Copa Libertadores (the equivalent of the Champions League), but at national level they have flattered to deceive. In 2006 Argentina were the early darlings of the World Cup scoring the memorable 26-pass goal against Serbia. Yet Jose Pekerman's side went out to Germany in the quarter-finals. At senior level Argentina's last success was the Copa America (the biennial continental championship) in 1993. Since then they have won five of seven Fifa Under-20 titles, underlining the production line of talent, but this series of golden generations have under-performed as adults. To fail to reach a World Cup finals would be catastrophic.

So the pressure is on, and it is being ramped up by the day. Maradona has taken the bold option, talking up his team. "We're going to win because we have better players," he said. "We have to play in Brazil's box. We can't let them breathe. We'll attack them down the wings, down the centre, with Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez creating havoc, with Javier Zanetti moving forward from the back. The free-kicks and corner-kicks can also be good for us. We have a lot of options."

Tevez weighed in with the suggestion that Brazil were "afraid" provoking the response from Brazil striker Luis Fabiano: "They're the ones who are worried. They have a lot to lose. We just have to play our game." Kaka added: "If I was in their position, with such troubles to qualify, it would be impossible for me to sleep at night."

The nightmare scenario for Maradona is that if Ecuador have failed to win in Colombia four hours earlier a Brazilian win will clinch their own qualification, on Argentine soil.

"When I met up with the players I said that I'd give anything to be 20 years younger and be able to play myself," said Maradona. Millions of his countrymen feel the same way, but he is not. The responsibility lies with Messi, and 10 lesser talents.

Additional reporting by Neil Clack in Buenos Aires.

Europe: Portugal need Ronaldo's divine intervention

The Netherlands have qualified and Spain and England are close but the remaining 10 places are up for grabs. Of the usual suspects France, Italy, Euro '08 semi-finalists Turkey and the Czech Republic have reason to be nervous while either Germany or Guus Hiddink's Russia will be condemned to a play-off.

The French, still led by the unpopular Raymond Domenech, trail Serbia by five points and must go to Belgrade on Wednesday after playing Romania tonight. Holders Italy lead the Irish by a point but go to Dublin next month. Turkey are third behind Spain and surprise package Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Czechs are a distant fifth in their group, seven points behind neighbours Slovakia who can knock them out tonight. But it is Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal which could be the most glamourous and unexpected absentees.

The nine group winners qualify, plus four through the play-offs.

Denmark v Portugal

(Copenhagen, 7pm, tonight)

Carlos Queiroz must regret ever leaving the Old Trafford dugout. Despite being blessed with the talents of players like Ronaldo, Deco, Pepe, Simao and Ricardo Carvalho, his Portuguese team could be eliminated this week. Lose tonight and an automatic place is beyond them, lose again in Budapest to Erwin Koeman's resurgent Hungary and they are out. Even a win or two may not be enough. And Sweden (playing in Budapest tonight) are also in the mix. Sponsors everywhere will be weeping.

Africa: Cameroon heading for exit

Almost halfway through the final qualifying stage and Ivory Coast, led by Didier Drogba and Kolo Touré, and Ghana (Michael Essien) are already on the brink of qualifying. Nigeria, with several Premier League players, are locked in a close fight with Tunisia, who visit Abuja tomorrow. But Cameroon are in peril and Egypt, the regular and reigning African Nations Cup holders, are struggling as, perplexingly, they so often do in World Cup qualifying. They trail Algeria and have only one home game – albeit against Algeria – left.

Gabon v Cameroon

(Libraville 3.30pm, today)

Gabon have never been to a World Cup finals, Cameroon have attended five, but the Indomitable Lions are hamstrung by an abysmal administration and need results from this week's back-to-back matches. With Tottenham's Christian Bassong replacing veteran Rigobert Song in the side coach Paul Le Guen has made Samuel Eto'o, pictured, captain and expects the Internazionale striker to lead the way. Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo are second, Morocco third.

Asia: Saudis face local difficulty

Australia's main aim in switching confederations from Oceania to Asia appears to have been the opportunity to enter a direct qualification process rather than face a play-off against the likes of Argentina or Uruguay.

If so, it succeeded as they have already booked their place in South Africa, along with North Korea (for the first time since delighting England in 1966), South Korea and Japan. Asia's fifth-place team face a play-off with New Zealand. Their identity will be decided, in this vast sprawling confederation, which stretches from Sydney to Beirut, by a local derby.

Bahrain v Saudi Arabia

(Manama, 8pm, today)

Bahrain is separated from their mainland rivals by the 17-mile, £1m King Fahd Causeway, and a vast disparity in population and size, but there will be little to choose between the teams in tonight's play-off. Having lost the final play-off against Trinidad four years ago, Bahrain, with a population similar to Leeds, will be desperate to succeed. Veteran Czech coach Milan Macala would also enjoy defeating the Saudis, one of many ex-employers. The return tie will be played in Riyadh on Wednesday.

Concacaf: Mexico get in the mix

Three points separate four teams, the fourth will end up in a play-off against the fifth-placed South American country, which could be Argentina. Costa Rica lead the group by virtue of the only away win in the section's first 18 matches (there have been 15 home wins) but lost 4-0 to second-placed Honduras last month. In third are the United States who, while much improved, still struggle to punch their regional weight. Mexico remain in contention in fourth but El Salvador and 2006 finalists Trinidad, the only Caribbean island team left, are well adrift.

Costa Rica v Mexico

(San Jose, 3am, tomorrow)

Since firing Sven Goran Eriksson, Mexico have achieved a rare win over the US and won the Gold Cup, but El Tri remain unable to win World Cup ties away from the Azteca. With Costa Rica wobbling, can Javier Aguirre (above) end the hoodoo despite playing on an artificial pitch?

Oceania: NZ on top

Australia's defection to Asia left the way clear for New Zealand, whose only World Cup appearance was in 1982, to dominate Fifa's smallest section. This they duly did.

The All Whites, who include British-based players Ryan Nelsen (Blackburn), Chris Killen (Celtic), Chris Wood (West Bromwich) and Rory Fallon (Plymouth), plus former AFC Wimbledon striker Shane Smeltz, now await a play-off against Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. The first leg will be in the Middle East next month, the second in New Zealand in November.