Riquelme: 'We can get better'

Better than the class of '86, best since '78 - no wonder Diego puts his shirt on Argentina

Hernan Crespo was lost for words. Everyone else simply lost their shirts as they threw them in the air - while Diego Maradona managed to borrow one and wave it with manic delight above his head. The Argentinian fans inside the AufSchalke Arena chanted: "We're going to leave as champions, just like in '86." Over and over again.

Maradona led them to that victory, which was the last time they won the World Cup. Now he is his country's self-appointed chief cheerleader. And he wore a replica shirt from that triumph - though probably a couple of sizes bigger than the one stretched across his chest in Mexico City 20 years ago.

Following Argentina's beautiful and brutal destruction of Serbia & Montenegro - afterwards, Dejan Stankovic said it felt like they had been "des-troyed" - it certainly appeared that the only thing to stop the Albiceleste from taking home the trophy for the third time is themselves. Maybe they want it too much. The players, and their coach, Jose Pekerman, have an extraordinary job on their hands to keep a lid on expectations after one of the most impressive performances in World Cup history. It included, in Esteban Cambiasso's strike, the second of the half-dozen and the culmination of 24 passes which started with Gabriel Heinze on the edge of his own area, one of the best goals scored at this level. In Germany's most futuristic stadium they played fantasy football.

Group C was rightly accorded the title of the "Group of Death". But the Argentinians, led by their playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, went for a quick kill. Six points from two games, and eight goals, and they have been installed as favourites to win in Berlin on 9 July. "We had fun on the pitch," Riquelme admitted after beating the Serbs. "Fun" is not normally a word used in post-match interviews, but he couldn't help himself. "The fans in the stands and the people back home also had fun."

They certainly did. And to think Argentina arrived at this tournament fretful of exorcising the ghosts of Japan four years ago, when they abjectly exited at the group stages. "I don't like the comparison," Riquelme said, before going on to make it himself. "But in the last World Cup we had some good games, but didn't have any luck in front of goal. I hope this doesn't prove to be our best game, and I hope we can continue to improve."

But no one would argue that the 2002 team ever reached the heights already achieved by Pekerman's squad. Indeed, Argentinian observers on Friday evening were saying that this was their best team since 1978 - the last time they scored six goals in a World Cup as Peru were crushed.

"The euphoria?" said Javier Saviola, who was withdrawn after an hour but who still shaded Riquelme as man of the match. "It's difficult to stop it, especially among our fans, but the big players in the squad have to take charge and calm everyone else down. This is a World Cup, and all the teams are strong."

There is also the reminder that, in Euro 2000, Holland, Argentina's next opponents, struck six against the then Yugo-slavia but lost in the semi-finals, while players such as Javier Mascherano talked about guarding against "complacency", "keeping our feet on the ground", and working on "things that need improving".

What will keep the players alert is the remarkable strength of the squad. It is all the more remarkable because Pekerman took the bold decision to omit Javier Zanetti, having already purged the team of much of their old guard. Extraordinarily, Saviola may have a fight on his hands to protect his place. Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi came off the bench to great effect, each scoring, each creating goals.

Pekerman said that it was "understandable" he would face pressure to make changes and start with Messi, in particular. The teenager, 19 on 24 June, became the youngest Argen-tinian to play in a World Cup finals, breaking a record that had stood since 1934, and the fifth- youngest player to score in the tournament's history.

Maradona has added to the pressure. He has anointed Messi his successor - a mantle Tevez tried on briefly - and the Barcelona winger revealed that "before the match, Diego came up to me and wished me luck. And that was a big lift for me, no doubt about it".

Crespo is also drawing inspiration. His goal now takes his international tally to 31, just three behind Maradona. When he finally managed to speak, the Chelsea striker said: "We are not thinking so much about being favourites. We have only played two matches. We showed good football, but this is only the beginning of the tournament. We need to be calm. I'm sure there are a few teams that can win it." But none looks more likely, right now, than his.

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