Not for nothing has it been dubbed "The Battle of Montevideo". It's one of the oldest rivalries in international football; they first met in 1901 and, in fact, all of Argentina's first 14 internationals were against their neighbours from across the River Plate. To put tonight's match in Uruguay into context, this is the equivalent of England playing away to Scotland in the last World Cup qualifier, with the home side needing to win, and the visitors requiring at least a draw – oh, and with Gazza as England's manager.
With Ecuador in the mix as well there are five possible permutations from tonight's final round of matches in the South American group, that will decide who finishes fourth (an automatic place), fifth (a play-off against Honduras or Costa Rica), and sixth (elimination). The nightmare equation for Argentina is if they lose in Uruguay, and Ecuador win in Chile. Considering already-qualified Chile are playing for nothing, and Argentina's away form is abysmal – one victory in their eight away qualifiers, with three defeats out of three under Diego Maradona, nine goals conceded and only one scored – it is not surprising that nerves have been fraying on the Argentina side of the delta over the last few days.
Tonight's venue, the Estadio Centenario, hosted the first ever World Cup in 1930 when Argentina and Uruguay contested the final, the hosts winning 4-2. Celebrations went on all night in Uruguay and a national holiday was declared, while across the river, there were public demonstrations and the Uruguayan embassy was stoned. The Argentina Football Association broke off relations with the Uruguay FA.
The 76,000-capacity, concrete-reinforced stadium has barely been renovated since that day. It had just been finished in time for the 1930 tournament, and legend has it that the Argentina manager, explaining his game plan to his players, drew lines and crosses in the drying cement, which can still be seen on the dressing room wall today.
Cynics would say that Argentina's players tonight would be better off looking at the those old markings than anything Maradona might offer on his chalkboard. The current manager has been severely criticised for a supposed lack of tactical nous and his constant chopping and changing of the team, although, to be fair, Argentina were not in great shape before he took over. They won only one of their last seven qualifiers under the previous manager, 64-year-old Alfio Basile, who stood down having failed to get his ideas across to the "PlayStation generation".
If Maradona thought it was simply a matter of motivation and "sweating for the shirt", as he put it, then the problems have proved to be more profound. While Argentina continue to produce skilful, diminutive "second strikers" – Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain – this disguises a lack of quality in other areas.
In Buenos Aires on Saturday, when they scraped past Peru, who are bottom of the South American qualifying section, thanks only to Martin Palermo's 94th-minute goal, the centre-back partnership of the ever-slowing Gabriel Heinze, formerly of Manchester United, and Newell's Old Boys' Rolando Schiavi, who was making his first start for Argentina at aged 36, was testament to the lack of options in defence.
"Upon accepting the job, Maradona described this Argentina team as a Rolls-Royce covered in dust that needed cleaning, but now his crown is also dirty," said the sports daily Ole yesterday. However, even allowing for Maradona's deficiencies, it is still difficult to explain why key players such as the captain Javier Mascherano and Messi have performed so badly in the qualifiers. The Liverpool midfielder, who has been "unrecognisable" according to La Nacion, was at fault on Saturday, when his dreadful back-heel led to Peru's late equaliser. And the debate as to why Messi has failed to replicate his Barcleona form in the national shirt dominates TV and radio. "Argentina appeared to have two Maradonas, but now we have none," wrote Ole.
Uruguay, with Diego Forlan leading the attack, have struck form impressively, winning their last two matches against Colombia and Ecuador. Needing victory, they will go on the attack tonight and the signs are that Maradona will drop his gung-ho approach and send out a more defence-minded team that will rely on the counter-attack.
Saturday's matches ended in incredible drama, with Forlan's last-minute penalty winner for Uruguay in Ecuador, and substitute Palermo's added-time winner for Argentina against Peru in the torrential rain. There was comedy as well, at which even Maradona's biggest detractors could allow themselves a smirk; the drenched, but ecstatic, manager bellyflopped on to the pitch, yanked his trousers up, wobbled like a penguin, before bellyflopping and sliding on the turf again. There is bound to be more drama tonight : it could become cynical and brutal, and, as always with Maradona, it will end in tears, either of joy or pain.
The crying game? What may happen
1. If Argentina win in Montevideo, they will qualify automatically. Ecuador will contest the play-off if they win in Chile, but Uruguay will go if Ecuador lose or draw.
2. If Argentina and Uruguay draw, and Ecuador don't win (or don't win by more than five goals) then Argentina will qualify, and Uruguay will contest the play-off.
3. If Argentina and Uruguay draw, and Ecuador win by more than five goals in Santiago then Ecuador will qualify automatically and Argentina will contest the play-off.
4. If Argentina lose to Uruguay, and Ecuador lose or draw, then Uruguay will qualify automatically, and Argentina will contest the play-off.
5. If Argentina lose to Uruguay and Ecuador win, then Uruguay will qualify automatically, and Ecuador will contest the play-off
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