It was so nearly the dramatic riposte Diego Maradona needs to silence his growing band of critics. Deep into the death throes of Argentina's World Cup qualifier in Asuncion, with Paraguay winning 1-0, Martin Palermo rose at the far post to head across the box. Breaking in to the area was Rolando Schiavi, introduced a few minutes earlier as a substitute. Maradona's decision to select the pair, respectively a 35-year-old last capped in 1999, and a 36-year-old who was making his international debut, had been highlighted as further evidence that El Diez's expertise as a coach was in inverse proportion to his greatness as a player.
Maradona brought on Schiavi with 10 minutes left and quickly sent the centre-half forward as an auxiliary attacker – the traditional last throw of the coaching dice at any level. However, not being a striker, Schiavi had paused in his run, waiting to see what happened instead of gambling. The delay proved fatal, he stretched, but just failed to turn Palermo's header into what was effectively an open goal.
It proved the Albicelestes' last chance. Paraguay, coached by Argentine Gerardo Martino, had scored after 28 minutes when Nelson Valdes completed a swift passing move with a fierce shot. The goal was overdue, La Albirroja having already hit the woodwork twice. Argentina, with Lionel Messi anonymous, suffered another blow when Juan Sebastian Veron was dismissed soon after the interval for a second yellow card.
As Paraguay celebrated, having secured their place at the World Cup finals as South America's second entrant after Brazil, Argentina began to contemplate the very real prospect of missing out for the first time in 40 years. The two-time winners are now in fifth place, which leads to a play-off against the fourth-placed Concacaf nation. This is currently Costa Rica.
But if Maradona does not conjure at least four points from his remaining matches, against Peru and in Uruguay, Argentina may not even come fifth as Uruguay, Venezuela and Colombia are all within two points.
"It is down to poor form and failures as a team," said Maradona. "I didn't think we were going to be like we are, but this is the reality. I will face it like always in my life. I am not afraid of criticism. I am afraid of nobody. They won't get rid of me. While I've still got a drop of blood left, I'll fight for Argentina's qualification. I have my team and I am going to go forward."
Maradona has lost four of six qualifiers and if the media have their way - the influential Clarin headlined: "Argentina is in freefall – without a parachute" - it will be someone else taking the team forward, perhaps Sergio Batista who steered Argentina to Olympic gold last year, or technical director Carlos Bilardo. However, as the Argentine Football Association's veteran president Julio Grondona boasts he has never fired a manager Maradona should survive, for now.
Additional reporting by Neil Clack in Buenos Aires.Reuse content