Argentina: Between Messi’s Magic and Maradona’s Madness

Argentina are one of the favorites to win the World Cup, and for good reason.  Not only do they have the best player of this generation, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, they also have astonishing attacking talent at their disposal. Their defenders don’t look too shoddy either, but the major question mark remains over their coach, the legendary Diego Maradonna.

You don't win Player of the Year for nothing

In attack, it is hard to think of any team that went into any World Cup with such quality strikers.  It is no exaggeration to say that Argentina’s top five strikers could walk into any other national first-team (except Spain’s).  Lionel Messi, at only 22, is the best player in the world today.  What he’s achieved over the past couple of seasons with Barcelona has made some consider him the best in history. He finished top-scorer in La Liga with 34 goals, won La Liga, and is in excellent form. For a little sampler, just check out these four wondergoals he scored in one game against Arsenal this season:

The problem with Messi, however, is that he has never translated his club form to his country. He’s never shone for the national team, and has looked out of place in his recent games, failing to combine well with his team-mates.  If Maradona can inspire the boy to do it this time, the rest of the World Cup becomes an irrelevancy almost.  Make no mistake; if Messi finds his best Barcelona form, he could single-handedly win the tournament for Argentina, no matter what anyone else does.  Such is the boy’s talent.

Higuain has got it

Gonzalo Higuain, also 22, is one of the best strikers in the world. He’s just completed an incredible season for Real Madrid with 27 goals.  As a connoisseur of football strikers, I find Higuain to be a joy to watch.  He has got this killer striker instinct and an eye for goal that you rarely find in even the best strikers in the world. Torres and Villa have it, The Brazilian Ronaldo had it, and Romario defined it. Higuain certainly has it. But Higuain has barely played for Argentina, and so it remains to be seen whether he can transfer his club form to his country.  I would suggest he will.

Diego Milito plays for Internazionale, and has just played a key role in the team winning a historic treble. He scored the winning goals of the Copa de Italia and the Champions League final.  He scored buckets of crucial goals in the Champions League and Serie A.  He’s full of confidence and in the form of his life.

Carlos Tevez has been one of the best strikers in the Premier League over the past season, playing for Manchester City.  He’s a hard-working striker who gives everything to the team and has an insane desire to win.

Aguero and Maradona's daughter pose with their son Benji, who really should captain Argentina to World Cup victory in 2034

Finally, Sergio Aguerro, also 22, is an excellent and fast striker who plays for Atletico Madrid. He also happens to be married to Maradona’s daughter, but there is no nepotism involved in picking this immense talent who was voted young player of the year by World Soccer last year.

For some strange reason, Maradona felt compelled to drag along Martin Palermo, aged 85, to the tournament.  A striker who failed to excel with the national team during his prime, it is unclear what he brings to this team today, especially with the incredible 5 strikers ahead of him.  Such is the amount of Argentinean talent that Maradona could still have called on French Ligue 1 top scorer Lissandro Lopez, Napoli’s excellent Ezequiel Lavezzi or Palermo’s Maxi Lopez.

In midfield, Argentina have two outstanding players: Javier Mascherano, who is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and Benfica’s exciting prospect Angel De Maria.

It’s in defense where things get a bit tricky for the Argentines.  Walter Samuel has put in an excellent season with Mourinho’s Internazionale, but big question marks hang over the three other defenders and the goalkeepers.  Martin Dimechelis may have won the double with Bayern Munich, but his form has been off at times. Gabriel Heinze has been declining steadily for the past few years, and doesn’t look reassuring at left-back.  Nicolas Otamandi, an excellent young right-back at 22, may be a bit too inexperienced for a World Cup.

All of which adds to the confusion over Maradona’s selection decisions.  He chose to omit Javier Zanetti, Internazionale’s fantastic defender/midfielder.  At 36, Zanetti has still got it, and was instrumental in Internazionale winning the treble this year.  He did not look out of place taking on some of the best players in the world like Robben and Messi, and there is no doubting his international pedigree and ability to perform this well for the national team.

Maradona also omitted Esteban Cambiasso, an excellent defensive midfielder who was also a key member of Internazionale’s excellent squad.  Instead of him, Maradona brough along another past-it old-timer, Juan Sebastian Veron. There is no question the greatness of Veron at his prime.  But these days are gone, and Maradon’s decisions seem strange.

The enigmatic coach has also decided to do away with half a century of tactical progress by stipulating that he does not want his full-backs to cross the halfway line.

Maradona at his greatest

If you’ve been isolated in a cave for the past 30 years, you might not know that Mardonna is considered by many to be the greatest player of all time. There is a church in Argentina that worships him and it has more than 100,000 followers.  He single-handedly (pun intended by this bitter England fan) won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986.  He achieved great success with Boca Juniors, Barcelona, and Napoli, before his spectacular career self-destructed in a hail of drug bans, personal problems, altercations with journalists, paternity lawsuits and endless acrimony. After he retired, things went downhill further for the little footballing genius: his drug and eating habits kept on taking their toll and he put on a lot of weight and had to have life-saving surgery a couple of times.

Maradona at his (physically) greatest

Recently, however, he has sought redemption in coaching.  He kicked his drug habit and took over the charge of winning the World Cup for Argentina. Most Argentineans were skeptical, since he has no coaching experience. He initially led Argentina to some awful performances, culminating in a 3-1 humiliating loss to Brazil in Argentina in which Maradona’s tactics seemed like the work of an amateur.  His choice in selecting players always seemed bizarre; he called-up about a hundred players to his teams in his short stint as manager.  The results deteriorated so much that the unthinkable became probable: Argentina were not going to qualify for the World Cup altogether.  Yet, somehow, Maradona managed to pull it off in the last minute (literally) in the game against Peru.  The manner of qualification was typical Maradona: Last-gasp, against the odds, and in the face of the detractors.

This seems to have rallied the players around Maradona, and today, even the country’s notorious press is backing him to bring home the title.  To be fair, even given his tactical naivety, this may not be so impossible with the talent he has.  If he does manage to close-up shop at the back, relying on Samuel and Mascherano’s formidable defensive abilities, the wonderkids upfront might set the world alight.

But that does not look very likely.  Argentina have a history of arriving at tournaments with very high hopes, incredible attacking talent, and then losing the plot thanks to tactical deficiencies.  In 1978, Argentina won the World Cup for the first time, and since then, they’ve had a golden generation every four years that has looked likely to life the trophy.  They failed in 1982, but succeeded in 1986 thanks to Maradona’s genius. Since then, perhaps no other country has reliably produced as much talent as Argentina has, and all to no avail.  In 2002, arriving with a great collection of attacking talent, the Argentines were installed favorites but imploded and got eliminated in the first round. In 2006 coach Jose Pekerman’s amateurish mistakes cost a dazzling Argentina the Quarter-final against Germany after they had been installed favorites.

Maradon’s fiery temperament and tactical naivety are not going to be the best way to get Messi to combine well with his team-mates.  Drilling the team into a coherent unit has not happened yet, and does not look likely under Diego’s watch.  One can easily see this team impress in the first round against the week opposition of Greece, South Korea and Nigeria, only to then stumble at the hurdle of the first well-organized strong team that meets them in the later stages.

But, we must remember, this is Maradona. The man, after all, has won a World Cup almost single-handedly.  He has proven doubters wrong over and over throughout his career, and he will delight in doing it again.  No team with Leo Messi could be underestimated.

So the jury is completely out on Maradona’s Argentina: if their massive riches of talent manage to find a way of playing together in a coherent unit, they could go all the way. If they don’t, they won’t.

Time, as always, is the only thing that will tell.  But whatever happens, it will surely be fun to watch.

The Guardian’s team guide.

Zonal Marking’s tactical analysis.

For some insight into the great Lionel Messi, read these two great pieces by The Guardian’s Sid Lowe.

Squad list with links to player profiles on Fifa.com:

Argentina

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About saifedean

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This entry was posted in Aguero, Argentina, Group B, Higuain, Maradona, Mascherano, Messi, Milito, Preview, Tevez. Bookmark the permalink.

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