By Jay Mwamba
Spoiled rotten for riches in his talented squad, Marcelo Bielsa has been under pressure to deliver Argentina’s third World Cup since Juan Sebastian Veron and Co. breezed through the South American qualifiers.
This crushing expectations are not confined to the nation that gave the world the irrepressible Diego Maradona only. Among most bookies, Argentina, champions in 1978 and 1986, are the betting favorites to leave the Far East with sport’s most coveted silverware.
They went into last Wednesday’s Geneva friendly with Cameroon riding a 15-match unbeaten streak, but as the 2-2 draw against the African titlists suggested, success in the finals, where they’ll collide with Nigeria in the aptly named “Group of Fear” opener, is far from a done deal.
An attractive, technical side in Latin America, Argentina have been less than convincing abroad, producing a lukewarm 1-1 tie with Wales in Cardiff in their last start before the Cameroon tussle.
But good teams rise to the occasion when it counts and it’s on this premise that so many like Bielsa’s finely balanced side.
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The sometimes sulking coach appears to have the right mix of players at his disposal: youth and experience, skill and brawn.
Twenty-year-old Javier Saviola, Barcelona’s $22 million summer signing from River Plate, adoringly nick-named “The Rabbit” for his toothy grin, highlights the youthful aspect of the squad whose average age is in the mid-20s.
Yet experience is profuse in the ranks, with most of Bielsa’s starters expected to be veterans of France ’98. At least five others, including skipper Diego Simeone, are survivors of Argentina’s ill-fated USA ’94 side.
Derided by English fans for goading David Beckham into ejection in France four years ago, Simeone is expected back from knee injury to reprise his role as midfield enforcer for the Argentines.
Probably the most cynical player at international level, the 31-year-old’s game is a throwback to the “blood and thunder” era of pre-Maradona Argentina. But he’s a wily veteran with close to a hundred caps whose sole mission as he approaches the twilight of his career is to hoist the World Cup.
A forceful presence alongside Simeone in midfield is Juan Veron, the 6-foot-1, shaven-skulled Manchester United playmaker dubbed the “Little Witch” in his homeland. He brings the creativity, to Simeone’s bruising power.
Blessed with an uncanny right foot, Veron, who’s 26, has yet to endear himself to English fans eagerly awaiting the grudge match between the two countries in Sapporo on June 7. But he was the star of the qualifiers and remains a vital cog in Bielsa’s plans for Japan/Korea ’02.
Other standouts in the Argentine engine room include Javier Zanetti, a Simeone clone without the cynical edge, and the wonderfully gifted Ariel Ortega, who was a 19-year-old reserve at USA ’94.
Fans call him “donkey,” a misnomer, really, for the sly attacking midfielder. Ortega may be the most skillful Argentine on the ball, with his clever dribbles and mazy runs, since the great Maradona.
The Argentines’ deep well of talent extends to both defense and attack — the latter where they boost of two of the world’s best strikers in Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo. Throw in the hot 21-year-old Valencia forward Pablo Aimar, who played a blinder against Cameroon last week, and you have a lethal combination.
Lazio’s 26-year-old Crespo, with one appearance at France ’98, to his credit bagged a team-high nine goals in qualifying and is the latest target on Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson’s radar.
Batistuta, who’s 33, is headed for his third finals after topping the scoring charts for Argentina at USA ’94 (four) and France ’98 (five). The Roma star’s current tally is an Argentine record 55 goals in 75 international appearances since his debut against Brazil in June 1991.
Defensively, Bielsa’s most prominent players are a trio of hardmen named Roberto Ayala, Walter Samuel and Jose Chamot. Although the team plays as a cohesive unit in all departments, that Argentina gave up a mere 15 goals in 18 qualifiers is largely a tribute to the organization and ability of the trio.
Tactically, Bielsa has Argentina playing a fluid 4-2-1-3 formation, anchored by midfielders Veron and Zanetti. Given the high skill level of the players, they are technically sound and switch from defense to attack very well, with the little Aimar’s pace and vision vital in this regard.
But the emerging consensus after the two ties with Wales and Cameroon is that Argentina also has kinks in its seemingly mighty armor.
One fundamental weakness, unexposed previously by their South American rivals who generally keep the ball on the ground, is a problem by both the defense and goalkeeper German Burgos in dealing with ‘rial attacks. All three goals conceded against the Welsh and Cameroon were headers from set plays.
The other flaw, a likely result of that still lingering Argentine cynicism of old, is a tendency to give away too many free-kicks.
Both of these frailties will be severely tested in the cauldron that is Group D. Pre-ordained as champions by many pundits, it won’t take long before Argentina’s true mettle is revealed.
Bielsa’s men have an unflattering schedule in Japan/Korea, their 13th World Cup campaign.
Their opening game against Nigeria’s mercurial “Super Eagles”; in Ibaraki on June 2 will be a rematch of the two nations thrilling battle for the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta six years ago.
Fielding the likes of Ortega, Crespo, Simeone, Matias Alymeda and others in the present squad, Argentina led twice in a gripping encounter before succumbing 3-2. Given their difficulties against Cameroon, a side with many similarities to Nigeria, but probably a notch below in skill level, the South Americans can expect another vicious dogfight.
Next up will be England on June 7, who they tossed out of France ’98 on penalties even after Beckham’s indiscretion had left the 1966 Cup winners with 10 men. A source of inspiration, however, for vengeance-seeking English fans are the still vivid memories of Michael Owen’s blistering speed burning defenders Ayala and Chamot.
Argentina wind up against Sweden in Miyagi on June 12. But unless they emerge unscathed against the Nigerians and England, their cause might be academic by that point.
(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist or finalists. The teams profiles to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Turkey, the United States, South Korea, Portugal, Poland, Nigeria and Sweden.)