Thursday, 20 November 2008

Argentina: First Impressions Of Maradona's Albiceleste

Just one game into his international managerial career and Diego Maradona is already just two wins away from equalling the number of victories he managed during 23 games as a club coach in the mid-nineties.

Argentina's 1-0 win over Scotland on Wednesday was a positive beginning to what is sure to be an interesting couple of years, and although the match wasn't able to live up to the pre-match hype, it did offer an fascinating insight into what we can expect from El Diego's Albiceleste.

The absences of Juan Roman Riquelme and Lionel Messi all but forced Argentina into playing without a player in the classic number ten role for the first time in recent memory, and the lack of such a player allowed Maradona to experiment with a more fluid attacking approach.

There were shades of last season's Manchester United to the Argentine attack in the first half, as Ezequiel Lavezzi drifted left, Carlos Tevez dropped off the front and Maxi Rodriguez took advantage of the space created by their movements to drive beyond the two nominated front-men and provide a goal threat from the right.

Tevez clearly had a point to prove after his recent struggles to hold down a regular first-team place at United, and gave an all action performance on his way to the Man of the Match award. With Sergio Aguero and Messi still to come into contention, he will have to continue in a similar vein if he wants to make himself indispensable in the lead up to the World Cup.

Javier Mascherano had initially been sceptical about taking on the captain's armband following Maradona's appointment, but on Wednesday's evidence he will make the perfect 'lead-by-example' captain, as he and Fernando Gago combined to provide an almost impenetrable wall in front of the back four. The defensive midfield pair also distributed the ball superbly, setting up many attacks with their excellent range of passing.

Jonas Gutierrez offered little in the attacking third, save his assist for the goal, but worked hard to neuter the attacking threat of Alan Hutton and could prove valuable to Maradona in a similar role when the opposition requires it. Against weaker adversaries, Benfica's Angel Di Maria is more likely to get the nod.

Emiliano Papa had a generally impressive debut at left-back, getting forward on a more regular basis than Gabriel Heinze usually does in the same role, although he wasn't really afforded the opportunity to show the quality of his left-foot delivery in the final-third.

Javier Zanetti still has energy for days at right-back, but is likely to see his position come under threat from San Lorenzo's Marcos Angeleri when the World Cup qualifiers resume next March, especially if Maradona wishes to dispose of some of the old guard and mould his own side.

Despite the positives that he will take from Wednesday's victory, Maradona will still be concerned over the few moments of defensive uncertainty that were on display, especially in the second half. Such indecision has already cost Argentina a number of points during the qualification process, and Maradona will be keen to get to the root of the problem as soon as possible.

Juan Pablo Carrizo is a solid goalkeeper, but lacks the authority to be the boss of his penalty area. Combine that with the sometimes poor decision making of Gabriel Heinze and Martin Demichelis and you have a potential recipe for disaster - something that Argentina can ill-afford if they are to be serious contenders in 2010.

Daniel Diaz and Fabricio Coloccini are often too rash in the challenge to be an international regulars and so it is probable that the likes of Nicolas Pareja of Espanyol and Villarreal's Gonzalo Rodriguez will get a chance to impress in Argentina's friendly against France in February, although the centre-back roles are pretty much wide-open at this point in time.

The situation is just as uncertain on the goalkeeping side. Roberto Abbondanzieri is becoming more error-prone as the years go on, Oscar Ustari has thus-far failed to usurp him at club level, and although Sergio Romero has made a solid start to life in the Netherlands with AZ, at 21 he may be considered too young to be chucked straight into the full national side.

Putting defensive issues aside, there are still a number of questions that need to be answered in the coming months. What role does Riquelme have to play in Maradona's Argentina? Is there really a need for a classic target man? Is there a place for Pablo Aimar? Will Andres D'Alessandro re-enter the fold?... etc, etc.

It has certainly been an encouraging start for the Maradona regime, but it is not until we get down to the business of World Cup qualification in March that he can be properly judged. Once he gets his coaching staff together and has some time with the players we will then see the true path on which he intends to take Argentina.

Wherever that is, it is sure to be compelling.

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