After watching Lionel Messi achieve Champions League glory with Barcelona this week, many Argentines turned their attention to the Albiceleste’s chances in South Africa.
Few nations can boast the stars of Argentina, many of which are young and contributed to the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Gold Medals, and the 2005 and 2007 U20 World Cups. When Alfio Basile resigned from the National Team in October, 1986 World Cup winner Sergio Batista was the natural successor, as he had won the Olympic Gold while finally getting Riquelme and Messi to play together.
Instead, the AFA made a costly move and inserted Batista’s World Cup teammate, Diego Maradona.
While Batista would have most likely relied on the youth movement and cleared out many aging stars of the past, Maradona has done nothing of the sort. While relying on motivational speeches rather than tactics, Maradona lost 6-1 to Bolivia leaving Argentina with an uphill battle to reach the World Cup.
Maradona’s tactics at altitude left his team in an awful situation, but one must look at the lists of players Maradona is using to see the real flaws. Maradona’s goalkeeper, Juan Pablo Carizzo, had been in terrible form for Lazio, and eventually lost his starting place.
Despite this, Maradona called up the former River Plate man, who was at fault for at least three of Bolivia’s goals, and was nearly embarrassed for a 7th when trying to play with his feet.
Maradona also continues to call up Real Madrid defender Gabriel Heinze. While Maradona loves Heinze for his fighting spirit, the man has simply lost the plot at the Bernebeu this season. Any right winger, such as Messi, relishes the chance to face Heinze, and the proof is visible in Barca’s 6-2 rout of Madrid, and Liverpool’s 4-0 win against them at Anfield.
Heinze has also failed at the international level, and scored an awful own goal against Paraguay.
Another puzzling call up is that of Juan Sebastian Veron. Although Veron has been in decent form for Estudiantes, as they are in the driver’s seat in their quarterfinal match-up with Defensor, after winning 1-0 in Uruguay, his place in the national team makes no sense.
Veron has been given a chance with the national team in a World Cup, and we all know how that ended. Veron’s inclusion is even more disturbing considering the only other classic “enganche” playing in the Argentine League has refused to play under Maradona.
The absence of Juan Roman Riquelme is one that may haunt Argentina in their run up to the World Cup. As Xavi and Andres Iniesta have shown for Spain at Euro 2008, and for Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League, playing the ball along the ground and keeping possession are the keys to success in today’s game.
Riquelme is an elegant playmaker much like Xavi, and would be the man in the Argentine side to control the pace of the game, keep the ball, and spray passes to the likes of Messi and Aguero. While Riquelme would certainly be invaluable, Maradona’s disagreement with and subsequent public criticism has seen Riquelme make himself unavailable for selection.
Maradona has not only forced Riquelme out of the team, but he has excluded many of the young stars who should be given a chance with the national team in favor of his favorites. Gonzalo Higuain has scored over 20 goals for Real Madrid this season, but his decision to sit out the Olympics has apparently angered Maradona enough to see him out of the squad.
Lazio’s Mauro Zarate, scorer of the winning goal in 2007 U20 World Cup final, has also been left out despite a fantastic run of form that included winning the Copa Italia.
Defender Gonzalo Rodriguez, who plays for Villarreal in Spain, has emerged as a key player for Pellegrini’s side, but has been kept out in favor of Heinze and Demichelis, both of whom have been horrible for their club sides this season.
Napoli keeper Nicolas Navarro has been on a hot streak of late, but there was no place for him in the team, as Carrizo, who remains idle at Lazio, was called up again inexplicably.
As anyone can see, Argentina have a team of stars who play on the world’s biggest clubs. They should be considered favorites for the World Cup along with Spain, if they get there.
The man Maradona must figure out a way get the defense playing better, find a goalkeeper who plays regularly for his club, and replace Riquelme. If he doesn’t turn it around soon, Argentina could be forced to have a play-off with a team from CONCACAF just to make it to South Africa.
What a travesty it would be for football if the likes of Messi, Mascherano, Tevez, and Aguero were not at the World Cup. We all hope Maradona can get it right.