Friday, June 30, 2006

Lineup confirmed against Germany












Thursday, June 29, 2006

World Cup Final. Right here. Right now. (June 30th)

No I’m not relaxed, OK? This is the biggest match my Nacional Team has to play in a World Cup in the last 16 years!

Do you know how many things happened to me in those 16 years????

I’ve finished elementary school. High school and University. My parents got divorced. Had three long-term relationship and got married to my beautiful wife Diana. Started dreaming of becoming a professional footballer. Was convinced by the manager at one club that I better study journalism. My father died. Got a job in a big newspaper. Then resigned. Got a job in a TV channel. Then again, resigned. Went to live in England and Italy. Worked there for a while. Lost a lot of hair. Earned a lot of kilos above my belt. Came back to Buenos Aires. And still, after all those 16 years, there is one thing that’s still the same: GERMANY!

Because the Germans where our rivals in the horrible night of the 8th of July in 1990. Italy ’90. World Cup final. When the Mexican referee (CODESAL) thought it was a foul by SENSINI and decided to give Germany a penalty kick. BREHME was the scorer and we lost the World Cup. Yes, I accept our team in that tournament was rubbish. We got very lucky beating Yugoslavia and Italy on penalties…but we’re right to think we were robbed that night.

Four years before that (as The Beatles said: “It was 20 years ago today!”), again DEUTSCHLAND!

That was the first big contest between our two countries. A World Cup final! BROWN-VALDANO-BURRUCHAGA, DIEGO’s magic and a lot of suffering, before we were crowned for our second time in history.

Enough with all this time-travelling. Let’s come back to today. Because we have another final coming up. No one can deny this is like a World Cup final for us. Probably more so for Germany.

Both teams are taking it that way.

But my job is to tell you how things are taking shape in the eyes of an Argentina fan.
That’s what I’ll try to do, being totally honest:


Well, not TERRIBLY, but a little bit yes. It’s normal. Don’t look at me that way. In a way, if you’re reading this, you’re feeling something similar. Don’t you?

It’s such a difficult thing to try and think how can this match be played. Two very different, yet similar teams in terms of ‘productivity’ (if you allow me the expression).

10 goals scored. 2 goals against. Group winners. The numbers suggest the two are very similar sides. Yet if you saw the way they played so far, you’ll notice Germany play a more pacy, speedy kind of football. With a lot of ‘vertigo’ and shooting from outside the area at the first chance they have.

Argentina, in contrast, play a more paused, rhythmical type of game. Passing is a commandment. Hoofing the ball is a sin. Never risk a golden chance by taking a low-percentage-shot from long range.

So I think the key for today’s match will be pretty simple: KEEP THE BALL!

If Germany can’t find the ball, they simply can’t harm Argentina.

Again, RIQUELME steps under the spot light and he looks (more than ever before) as the key figure for Argentina. He has a bad game and Argentina goes home. Quite simple. He has a good game, we might advance. He has a great game, we’re through to the semifinals. Period.

He’s the one who can slow down the whole German team and start working as a master puppeteer for Argentina.

Will he move METZELDER, MERTESACKER, LAHM, FRIEDRICH, FRINGS and company around?

Whatever happens, I just hope I don’t have to sit here in 16 years time, talking about a rubbish referee or a wasted chance for our beloved team.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I'm RIQUELME. Love me or hate me (June 28)

Yes, I know. Germany is coming on Friday and all our focus should be in that crucial match against them.

But I would like to write a few lines about one of football’s most intriguing players: Juan Roman RIQUELME.

I’ve been following football since as long as I can remember. I’m 29 years old and I don’t remember seeing a player as controversial as Roman in my whole life.

I don’t mean controversial in an Eric CANTONA’s way. He was either loved or hated but no one ever denied his footballing skills. And he also had a history of bad behaviour that has nothing to do with RIQUELME.

RIQUELME is controversial because if you read the Argentinean newspapers, you’ll never know if he had a good or a bad game. If you happen to go to a bar in Buenos Aires or in any other city in this country, you’ll certainly hear people sitting at a table next to yours, talking about him and you’ll see one of those guys playing the ‘defender’ part, while his friend will become the ‘prosecutor’.

It’s just like that. His performances are black or white; great or rubbish. But yet, never unnoticed.

His talent is impossible to deny. He has plenty of tricks in his bag and that’s something that is not very questioned. Even his detractors accept he has an incredible flair. A talent that was first known to the World when he was one of the key stars in PEKERMAN’s under-20 Argentina national team crowned in Malaysia 1997.

I remember him making his debut for Boca Juniors (a team I don’t support, by the way. My team is Racing Club). He was immediately criticised because he was not the type of player Boca fans wanted in their team. A Boca player is prototypically a warrior. One who never quits. One who will go for the ball like there’ll be no other, no matter what. And then, if he has time, he can also play.

But here comes this skinny young fellow, trying to make that impossible pass or maybe keeping the ball too much before being dispossessed and then, tragedy for Boca fans: HE DIDN’T COME BACK TO DEFEND AND GET THAT BALL BACK! LET ALONE A SLIDING TACKLE!

Yet, he started producing. He became irreplaceable, vital, needed in a team that started winning everything under manager Carlos BIANCHI.

Juan Roman RIQUELME started to conquer ‘La 12’ (the name of Boca’s supporters group, nicknamed as ‘Player number 12’ because his influence in a game by the way the vocally support their team makes them virtually become that extra player).

That was when ROMAN definitely conquered me. He won my respect a little bit before he won over Boca’s fans. Because he never gave up. He never pretended to change his style in order to win a standing ovation from La 12 while at the same time he never stopped trying to hit that perfect back-heel pass. That takes an incredible amount of courage, I’m not exaggerating and those of you who have been fortunate enough to attend a Boca match at La Bombonera, will agree with me.

League titles came, Copa Libertadores followed (with an unforgettable performance away at Palmeiras, Brazil) and finally he was playing against ROBERTO CARLOS, FIGO, RAUL, CASILLAS, HIERRO and all of Real Madrid’s super stars in the European-South American Cup in Tokyo.

What did he do? He had a memorable match, an assist included, and he totally controlled the game. No surprise FC Barcelona was watching and immediately after that, RIQUELME was bought.

All of that time, he was neglected by Marcelo BIELSA. Obviously, Juan Roman was not the kind of fast, first-run-then-think type of player preferred by our former national team manager. So he missed the trip to the Korea-Japan 2002 World Cup while he never got to shine at the Camp Nou as he did at La Bombonera.

‘So he started changing the way he plays, right?’ could be one of the question somebody, who doesn't know how the story continues, may ask about him. Of course not! He went to Villarreal and he helped them to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.

Yes, he failed that crucial penalty against Arsenal in the semifinals, but he’ll step up to take another penalty if it’s needed. He failed because he took the risk and the responsibility that comes with it.

Reading some blogs around the internet and taking a look at some local newspapers in Argentina at that time, I remember feeling sorry for ROMAN after that miss against Arsenal. All of his detractors fell harshly on his back and started a silly witch hunt against him.

Yet, PEKERMAN confirmed RIQUELME’s place in our national team while he gave him the mythical shirt with the number 10 in its back.
The World Cup came hand in hand with controversy. While he is being looked at as one of the biggest stars in this tournament by the British media (to give just one example) and chased by Inter Milan, he is being very criticised back home. And that’s what I found controversial.

Some people blame him because he has a tendency to pass the ball backwards. Some others say that’s a sign of a great player who knows when to go forward and when to secure possession and start the play once again from behind.

A fair number of critics say he is too slow for international football. Fans and neutrals find his style and the way he keeps possession while waiting for the perfect space to place the next pass as something absolutely beautiful.

I guess that if you’ve been reading so far, you’ll notice that I’m one of those who like the way RIQUELME plays. And here’s my opinion on ROMAN’s World Cup performances so far.

While he had his moments of brilliance (a perfect assist for SAVIOLA against Ivory Coast a total dominance of midfield against Serbia & Montenegro with 77 good passes and only 2 bad ones, a couple of nice tries against Holland and another assist from the corner flag for CRESPO against Mexico and one pass to SAVIOLA that should’ve ended in the back of the net), he also had his moments of insignificant play.

The positive aspect of this whole thing is clear: RIQUELME IS YET TO PLAY HIS BEST FOOTBALL IN GERMANY 2006.

He had a private conversation with PEKERMAN two days ago and the manager gave him all of his confidence for the match against Germany. RIQUELME was feeling bad about his performances and his morale was a little low.

Now he has the perfect stage for the next captivating show in his career. In fact, the stage was never bigger. We are talking about a man who always stepped up to the biggest challenges.

We are talking about a man who might not demonstrate what’s going on inside of him.

And most importantly, we are talking about a tremendous football player who has thirst for revenge and wants to laugh last.

LEHMANN will again be the goalkeeper, like when Arsenal knocked Villarreal out of the Champions League. If I was LEHMANN, I would be very very very scared of this still skinny fellow.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

MAXImizing our chances?

Thank God this is not a radio show, because my voice has gone completely.

I don’t remember shouting and screaming like crazy as I did when MAXI scored that sensational goal in extra-time. Oh man! What a moment!

I don’t want to hear a word about Mexico. I’ll shake a leaf next time I see a green shirt near me. What an effort by them! What a performance! What a way to suffer for 120 minutes (and all those minutes in-between, they’re even worst than those minutes in which the ball is rolling!).


I remember reading one of your e-mails, and it pointed out a thing: ‘What will happen if Argentina are behind in the score? Will they have what it takes to comeback and win it?’

I think that one of the things we did have was LUCK! It’s not as simple as that. We didn’t win because of luck, I’ll be a fool to think we did. But we did have that brief moment of everything going our way and MAXI sent us to the quarter finals!

We’ve won and that’s something to celebrate. The way we’ve won, could serve us to build up some momentum again and to give our players the belief needed to go far in the World Cup.

I’m not happy with the way we played and I hope against Germany we don’t repeat any of the mistakes we made.

And before I finish, I want to have a word with you Mr. MAXI RODRIGUEZ:

If against Germany you want to repeat any of the things you did today, please, make yourself at home and be my guest!


Germany is waiting. Don't let them down! (June 24th)

Argentina vs. Mexico

It's raining heavily in Buenos Aires as I write these lines a couple of hours before Argentina face Mexico for a place in the quarter finals to play against Germany.

The first images live from the Leipzig stadium are coming through every TV channel in Argentina and up there is warm and sunny.

Which side of the coin will our team show to the world today?
The chaos of the last 20-25 minutes against Ivory Coast? The brilliant passing game that captured the attention of everybody while we defeated Serbia & Montenegro 6-0? The inability to find the back of the net we showed against Holland? Or the incredible goal-rate of the first two matches with 13 shots on goal and 8 of those going in?

This game is different than the previous three. It's bigger, more important and much more difficult. And one of the reasons is the rival itself: Mexico.
They might not be playing as good as they can. They might have escaped the group stage by defeating only Iran (and doing it in the last 15 minutes of the game thanks to an incredible mistake by defender REZAEI). They might have been unable to score against humble Angola and they might have played a horrible first half against Portugal. But they are really dangerous for Argentina.

I'm confident in our team once again. I'm confident after seeing our players singing inside the bus that took them to the stadium. Letting all the adrenaline go. Losing it. Enjoying the moment as they prepare to play the most important football match of their lives.

They look focused. They don't look like they are underestimating anybody (like they seemed to do in 2002!) and that's the spirit I want to see coming from them.

The last time we won a knock out match in a World Cup was 16 years ago! Even though we advanced to the quarter finals in France '98, we did so by beating England in a penalty shoot-out, after drawing 2-2.
In USA '94 we lost against Romania in the second round and in Korea-Japan 2002 we went home in the first round. So if you're looking for our last victory in a game like the one we have today, you've got to go all the way to Turin in Italy '90 when we defeated Brazil thanks to a wonderful assist by MARADONA for CANIGGIA to score after rounding TAFFAREL.

These group of players have the chance to make a little history by winning today and to get the better out of a tough rival that kept us at bay in the last Confederations Cup's semifinal when we had to go all the way to the penalty shoot-out.

They've got an Argentinean manager (Ricardo LAVOLPE) and a striker who was also born in our country (Guillermo FRANCO). They know us to the very last detail and they know how to play against us.

But today, we've got to birthday boys! Juan Roman RIQUELME is celebrating his 28th birthday today and he'll try everything to have plenty of things to remember in the future.

And talking about the future, Lionel MESSI is also blowing the candles today. 19 years old for the best young player in the world, who will again start the match sitting on the bench, waiting for the second half to come, to have another chance to shine.

Our line-up for today sends me good vibes. I like our starting 11 and here they are for you to have it before the match begins:

3. SORIN (captain)
13. SCALONI (thank you PEKERMAN for not using COLOCCINI today!)

So a back line of SCALONI-AYALA-HEINZE-SORIN (with SORIN going forward everytime Mexico allow him to and SCALONI allways staying back, like BURDISSO did in our first three matches before he got injured).
The same midfield that started against Ivory Coast and Holland and the striking partnership of the first two matches.

The key to this game for Argentina?

Pass the ball around. Don't get into Mexico's rhythm and try to give RIQUELME the ball. Win the midfield battle through CAMBIASSO and MASCHERANO and use MAXI's runs from the right and SORIN's from the left to surprise Mexico if they are on the attack.

And if we manage to score first, don't forget what we love to see the most: ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK and most importantly: KEEP ON ATTACKING!


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Zero risks, zero defeats, zero regrets (June 22nd)

Argentina 0 - Holland 0

Last Friday, after Argentina produced the best performance of this World Cup, my question was: How can I keep the cool? The match against Holland provided me with the perfect answer.

In a way, I’m happy with that. Somehow, I was feeling notoriously uncomfortable being in that position. I hated to hear everybody talking about Argentina being the new main candidate to win the World Cup, taking the pressure out of Brazil and, like my colleague Rodrigo FRESTON said in his blog at Soccernet, we were helping the World Champions by encouraging them to play more relaxed and giving them the right motivation to face every match.

But before I keep on talking about Brazil and who is favourite and who is not, there was an intense football match last night and I would like to share my thoughts with you.

Respect was present all over the field. Two teams with a great rivalry and a rich footballing history. Defeat would have been hard to take. Qualification to the second round was already in the bag. There were a lot of factors indicating that a 0-0 draw was a ‘happy’ result for both Argentina and Holland.

It’s hard to make an in-depth analysis with both teams playing with a lot of substitutes. Key players like CRESPO, SAVIOLA, SORIN and HEINZE (ARG) and ROBBEN, VAN BRONCKHORST, HEITINGA, MATHIJSEN and VAN BOMMEL (NED) were all missing, so if both teams advance and meet up again in the final (it could happen) I don’t think the match we will see will be similar and will serve as a valid precedent. It’ll be a whole different movie, with plenty of other actors taking part.

PEKERMAN played with the idea of replacing CRESPO with CRUZ and SAVIOLA with TEVEZ. But in the end, and just minutes before the match, he decided it was a good opportunity to give Lionel MESSI the first of the many World Cup starts he will have in his career.

It looked like a good idea, but for it to be a brilliant idea, we would have needed a goal coming in the first half. That would’ve been the key to open up the Dutch defense, because if they were behind in the score, they would have come forward a little bit more, letting MESSI and TEVEZ to play their best game, with lots of spaces to go forward.

The first 20 minutes were dominated by Holland. The Oranje had more possession and they controlled the flow of the game, but they were not creating chances. Argentina never felt the pressure and when we did, ABBONDANZIERI showed the security people were questioning him about before the World Cup.

After those initial moments, RIQUELME started putting the ball underneath his right shoe and we saw a couple of flashing appearances by MESSI while TEVEZ was always dangerous but ‘messy’ (oh…yeah…the irony!), and that was not enough to beat Edwin VAN DER SAR.

The most dangerous action of that first half almost ended in an own goal by Holland’s number 3, Khalid BOULAHROUZ, after a free kick by RIQUELME when TEVEZ was charging towards the near post.

Maxi RODRIGUEZ had an effort that went just wide and little else.

To tell you the truth, I think the most important thing that happened in the first half (if not in the whole match) was Nicolas BURDISSO’s injury. He has a sprain in his right knee and he is out of the Mexico match.

During the second half it was more of the same. None of the teams showed a real ambition to win it.

TEVEZ showed a lot of movement going forward, but sometimes he was a little bit selfish and, in my opinion, he and MESSI were sometimes isolated against the Dutch defense.

I thought, at that point, the best thing would have been to start with Julio CRUZ along with TEVEZ, to give the team a legit big striker who could keep the orange defense busy. And then replace him with MESSI midway through the second half.

Then again, if we scored in the first half, MESSI and TEVEZ on the field would have been lethal in counter attacks and with plenty of room to run, so it was a worthy bet by PEKERMAN. Besides, to give MESSI and TEVEZ the chance to play 90 minutes and show what they can do, while give SAVIOLA and CRESPO the chance to rest and forget about the yellow card they saw in the first round.

MESSI started to lose his explosion and his breath so he was replaced and we didn’t have the chance to see him playing alongside Pablo AIMAR.
It was good to see him taking on the field, but he had little time to show his ability.

I’m glad the Group C was left behind. After crashing dramatically in another version of the Group of Death in 2002, it’s a fantastic feeling to advance in the World Cup and to have no suspensions and only two injured players (sensible injuries, but none of them irreplaceable and both can comeback before the final –if we reach it, please, let’s reach it!-).

Right now, I’m keeping the cool and that’s superb, because it was too much pressure piling up inside me and I think amongst our players too.
Now their confidence remains intact, they are still undefeated, they will be respected but they are not the favourites to win it all. Let’s leave that privilege to our brilliant neighbours. But we know, deep inside, we know that in any given day, we are capable of coming up with another perfect performance.

Let’s do it against Mexico now and don’t think of who will come next. That’s a mistake I’m making everyday. You’re welcome to do it with me, I won’t mind, even if I have a lot of company…yeah…you know…almost 38 million people!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Argentina vs. Holland - LIVE IT HERE!

The winner will face Mexico. Lose and you'll play against Portugal. A draw and it'll be Tango vs. Tequila.

Unlike the previous two matches, Jose PEKERMAN is playing hide and seek and a couple of hours before the game, our lineup was yet to be confirmed.
But now we're ready to go with these eleven men:

BURDISSO, AYALA, MILITO, CUFRE (a surprising move by PEKERMAN, leaving SORIN out of the team)
And up front, the People's favourite: TEVEZ and MESSI.

A great mix and some surprises, but no doubt PEKERMAN wants to win the group and the 'Atomic Flea' Lionel MESSI is making his first start in a World Cup. Here's hoping for him to have a great romance with this tournament like the great Diego, who will be cheering him from the stands as our number one supporter!

I'll be watching it, of course, but if you want, you can join me here and we can comment on the match as things happen.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

One for the old times (June 20th)

Argentina vs. Holland

When they jump to the field this Wednesday, probably John HEITINGA will be sitting on the bench, and with him the mythical 'oranje' number 14 that once belonged to the great Johan CRUYFF.

For the Albiceleste, 'El Matador' KEMPES won't be terrorising the Dutch defense like he did in 1978. Instead, his number 10 (which now belongs forever to a certain Diego Armando MARADONA) will be on RIQUELME's back.

In short, Argentina and Holland will play another episode of a great World Cup rivalry that saw them play three times in history.

Holland have won 2 of those 3 matches, but Argentina have won the most important for sure.

Like this Wednesday, the first time the ‘Albiceleste’ and the ‘Oranje’ played against each other in a World Cup was in Germany, but 24 years ago.

Those were the days of the ‘Clockwork Orange’ (known to all of us in Argentina as: La Naranja Mecánica, of course!). Rinus MICHELS and his concept of Total Football were setting the world alight. They won Group 3 with 2 wins (Uruguay 2-0; Bulgaria 4-1) and 1 draw (Sweden 0-0) and advanced to play against Brazil, East Germany and Argentina in the second group stage.

Gelsenkirchen saw Argentina playing the top of their game last Friday against Serbia & Montenegro, but 24 years ago, we suffered a total humiliation by CRUYFF and his mates. It was 4-0 to Holland with Johan scoring a brace and Ruud KROL and Jonny REP also in the scoreboard.

Then Holland advanced to the final and they lost to Germany on their way to become the greatest team ever to fail to win the World Cup.

Four years later the World Cup was hosted by Argentina (with our country living its darkest hour under a terrible military government guilty of killing –or disappearing- 30.000 people). Johan CRUYFF didn’t attend to that World Cup and it was believed he refused to join his team because he was against the military government. Later on there was another version saying he didn’t come to Argentina for the World Cup because he choose to stay with his wife.

In any case, his absence might have prove to be crucial as Argentina defeated Holland in the final match after 90 minutes with a 1-1 score (Mario KEMPES (ARG) and Dick NANNINGA (NED)).

NANNINGA, who scored for Holland had an incredible chance to win it near the end, but his effort hit the post and the match went to extra time.

Then Mario KEMPES and Daniel BERTONI had the final saying and Argentina won the World Cup for the first time. Denying an impressive Dutch team which was runner-up twice in a row.

20 years after that memorable day in Buenos Aires, Holland and Argentina were to play again in a World Cup. This time it was a knock-out stage: Quarter finals, France ’98.

Argentina defeated England on penalties in the second round, while Holland, through an Edgar DAVIDS’ 92nd-minute strike advanced against Yugoslavia (2-1).

Patrick KLUIVERT drew first blood for Holland, while Claudio LOPEZ equalised for Argentina.

Gabriel BATISTUTA hit the post in which would have been the winner for Argentina but the match was going to extra time again, only 20 years later. But one minute before the final whistle, a long pass towards the Argentina box, a mistake by CHAMOT and a lethal Dennis BERGKAMP, dribbling past Roberto AYALA, were just enough to beat goalkeeper Carlos ROA and the Dutch advanced to face Brazil in the semis.

With nothing at stake, compared to the previous encounters between these two footballing powers, this match in Frankfurt still have some magic about it and everybody in Holland and Argentina wants to win this one, because maybe, just maybe, we could meet again in Berlin, for the biggest match in the history of this rich rivalry.

What’s your all-time favourite memory about Argentina vs. Holland in the World Cups? Is it KEMPES’ brace in 1978? Is it CRUYFF’s magic in 1974? Maybe ORTEGA heading VAN DER SAR’s chin? Have a prediction to make?

Monday, June 19, 2006

New faces, we want same result! (June 19th)

France ’98. Group H. Third match. Argentina and Croatia had to play in Bordeaux and they were both qualified already for the second round (after beating both Japan and Jamaica).

A few people talked about it at that time, but it is believed that Croatia didn’t try hard enough to win that match (Argentina won 1-0) and because of that, Argentina had to face England in the second round (2-2 and a penalty shoot-out victory after 120 tiring minutes) and then Holland in a very tricky quarter final tie. ORTEGA losing it, hitting VAN DER SAR with his head to see the red card and Dennis BERGKAMP scoring the winner, that was the end of our journey in that World Cup.

On the other hand, Croatia faced Romania in the second round (1-0 in only 90 minutes) and then Germany, not an easy rival, against which Croatia displayed what’s probably their best performance in history (3-0) on their way to the semifinals. They lost to France and the rest is history.

What’s my point? My point is at this stage, when a team is qualified before the last match, there is always room for speculation and for the manager to make changes to his team in order to avoid further yellow cards, injuries and stress to the key players.

And if you let me give you my opinion, I think that’s fair enough, but I also believe we should try and win against Holland at all costs.

Losing will mean we have an extra day of rest before facing the winner of Group D (Portugal or Mexico). But it will also mean we’ll have to face, in case we go far in this World Cup, England in the quarter-finals and Brazil in the semifinals. All this speculation is according to logic and with England and Brazil winning their groups (like they are winning them at the moment of writing).

Winning (or getting a point against Holland) will give us 1st place in Group C, a day less to rest before our second round fixture against the second of Group D (Portugal, Mexico or –believe it or not they have chances- Angola). But most importantly, it will mean we will avoid facing the likes of Brazil, England and probably Germany, Spain, Italy and England before the final!

What? Yes, what you’ve just read! Let’s play a little game here. If Germany fails to beat Ecuador, they’ll finish second in their group and will go to the other side of the draw. They could face England in case they win or draw against Sweden and either Ecuador, Sweden or –believe it or not they have chances- Trinidad & Tobago could be our rivals in the quarter finals.

An old saying goes like this: ‘To win the World Cup, you’ve got to beat the best teams’. Yes, I agree with it, but it won’t hurt anybody if they play against each other on the other side of the draw while we avoid facing the creators of the game or the home team in Quarter Finals and the 5-times World Champions or the catenaccio masters in the semis. Are you with me?

That’s why I think this Wednesday’s fixture against Holland has so many implications and could be crucial in our way to Berlin.

PEKERMAN is with me and he definitely wants to win the group, but at the same time he needs to preserve some key players.

As I’m writing this, it appears there will be some interesting substitutions from what was our starting line-up against Serbia & Montenegro. Have a look:

ABBONDANZIERI will remain in goal. BURDISSO, AYALA and SORIN will also keep their places in defense, but Gabriel HEINZE, who saw a yellow card against Ivory Coast, will leave his place to Gabriel MILITO, a solid central defender who plays for Zaragoza.

A big question mark on CAMBIASSO and MASCHERANO, the inclusion of one from Lionel SCALONI or Fabricio COLOCCINI could see one of them to sit on the bench.

It could be the lucky day for many many many of you asking about Pablo AIMAR. PEKERMAN could use him to give some rest to Juan Roman RIQUELME. So against Holland, ‘El Payasito’ AIMAR could have his chance to play from the start.

Up front? Both CRESPO and SAVIOLA carry a yellow card and PEKERMAN wants both of them ready for the weekend. The pair with more chances to play from the start are: Carlos TEVEZ and Julio CRUZ.

I agree with this changes, because TEVEZ could perfectly play SAVIOLA’s role, while CRUZ is the only player in our squad with a similar game to CRESPO (a big hitman who plays inside the box, can win in the air and has a knack for scoring). Plus, he has experience playing in the Dutch league (Feyenoord 1997-2000) and that could prove vital in a one-off match.

Lionel MESSI will again wear the super-sub suit he so elegantly wore last Friday.

Marco VAN BASTEN has also said he will preserve all of his players who have seen the yellow card. That includes Arjen ROBBEN, Gio VAN BRONCKHORST, John HEITINGA, Mark VAN BOMMEL, Joris MATHIJSEN and Khalid BOULAHROUZ. So Holland won’t be facing their strongest line-up either and it could be a matter of who have the deepest bench.

I think we do. Let’s crush some oranges!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The day after (June 17th)

I feel like a boy again. A little child who dreams about football like I did when I was 9 and Argentina was the best in the World. Because I remember exactly where I was in each of those Mexico ’86 matches, in which Diego MARADONA gave the planet football, the best individual performance in the history of the World Cup.

Now I feel this team is putting Diego and my self in the same position. He is a fan now. Probably the most passionate around! And seeing him acting the same way I did when I was 9, makes this whole thing a little bit surreal.

Like experiencing the same things I did 20 years ago, when I had the proper age to act like I’m acting now! I’m changing my sleeping hours (and reducing them to a dangerous low!). I’m eating very badly and I’m not seeing friends and family (other than those who join me to watch the matches). I’m a grown up now, but I’m acting like a child and to tell you the truth: I’m loving it. Grown ups don’t enjoy football like we, the little kids of the World, do! Joking aside, I think that’s the best way to explain what is going on with my self lately, and I sincerely hope this could go on for a while.

There are thousands of ways to analyse what happened yesterday. A few concepts could help us to do so:

Argentina left behind the anxiety of the debut match against Ivory Coast and played a little bit more relaxed.

The early goal by Maxi RODRIGUEZ, in a great team effort with a back heel pass by SORIN to SAVIOLA who then made a perfect assist for MAXI, helped Argentina to control the game playing with the Serbs’ desperation.

Serbia & Montenegro suffered from the off-the-pitch problems. You could see there were no generosity amongst their players and they never played as a team. In contrast to that, Argentina had its most powerful weapon in team spirit and collective game.

The passing and more importantly the clinical finishing showed by Argentina were at the highest point. Perhaps Spain was the only other team with an unstoppable knack for scoring so far. But 3 of their 4 goals against Ukraine came from dead ball situations, whereas Argentina scored 6 goals from open play.

Argentina kept going forward and that was the key to kill off the game, making room in the team for the lethal: Carlos TEVEZ and Lionel MESSI. Both of them showing that they are ready to step up at the highest international level.

That sums up pretty much what was the best performance by Argentina in many years. But what really put this showing into perspective are the echoes you can hear from the media in every corner of the World. I want to have a word with those in charge of Gazzetta dello Sport and La Repubblica (Italia); Marca, As and Sport (Spain); Lance, Folha do Sao Paulo, Terra, Gazeta Esportiva (Brazil); BBC, The Guardian and even The Sun (England); L’Equipe (France); A Bola (Portugal) and the bookies all around the World: Are you trying to drive me mad? Don’t you know I’m already fired up? I don’t need your help to make me believe this time we can really go all the way. Thank you very much anyway. It’s a real pleasure to read your lines about Argentina, filled with all kinds of adjectives you only seemed to save for other teams.

Another kind of flattering, is coming for a different source. The purest. The most beautiful. Let me put it this way: the number of passes we saw in our second goal (25. 26 if you count Maxi’s steal with what looks like a pass backwards to HEINZE) is nothing compared to the e-mails I’ve been receiving! I apologise but I was unable to reply to all of them. I hope I’ll have the time to do it, as I enjoyed it very much. In any case, thank you very much for ‘losing your cool’ with me!

As I promised to do after every Argentina match in this World Cup, here are my picks as Man of the Match and other mentions:

First of all, like an old football saying reads in Argentina when a performance like this is witnessed: ‘La figura fue el equipo’ (‘The team was the star’). In a way to recognise a team effort rather than an individual showing. I will agree with that old cliché, there were no weak links yesterday and there is not a single player to be credited for this triumph. However, I’ve got some things to say about a couple of impressive men.

Man of the Match:
Javier SAVIOLA. For the second match in a row. He was absolutely brilliant. I can’t believe why Barcelona keeps on neglecting him. Granted he is not a scoring machine like Samuel ETO’O. Granted Ludovic GIULY is playing at a high level. But now that Thierry HENRY snubbed them to stay at Arsenal and now that Henrik LARSSON returned to his native Sweden and Maxi LOPEZ is off to Mallorca, I don’t see why he is not considered at least as a second or third option. In any case, I’m happy for SAVIOLA because without a doubt he will have his reward and will play in a top club in Europe next season once again. Yesterday he had a part in all of our three first half goals and again, he showed great sacrifice to help his team-mates when Argentina was off the ball.

Maxi RODRIGUEZ. A quiet player. A quiet guy. But he can do whatever it’s needed on the pitch. He can chase his rivals all over the field, he can pass, he can run at defenders and he can surprise opposing defenses while scoring at every chance he has. One goal to open up the match in the 6th minute. Another to finish it off in the 41st. A great show all around.

Juan Roman RIQUELME. One of the e-mails I’ve received asked me about a fantasy football advise. This guy was concerned because he wanted to include a player from Argentina and he didn’t like CRESPO that much. He had RIQUELME and wanted to know whether to keep him or not. So I said: ‘Look, he is the free kick specialist, the corner and penalty kicks taker. He can have an assist with a killer through pass at anytime. I would say keep him’. Well, he scored minus 0.50 and this guy probably wants to kill me. But I think it’s a case of this fantasy rules being rubbish. RIQUELME was the playmaker in a team that destroyed the opposition in a brilliant 6-0 victory and was the guy who had 5 of the 25 (or 26) passes in that unforgettable second goal. He ruled the timing, the pace and the flow of the whole game. Hardly a bad game, isn’t it?

Best of the rest:
Hernan CRESPO. A goal, an assist and a goal ruled out (while he was slightly onside). Great sacrifice, he was fouled inside the box in the second half and his delicious back heel pass for CAMBIASSO in the second goal was superb. Keep it coming Hernan!
Of course, I don’t want to be the public enemy number one, Carlos TEVEZ and Lionel MESSI. They played less time than the players I’ve highlighted and they came in with the game already won. But you cannot leave them unnoticed because of this. It was their World Cup debut and both of them had a goal and an assist and shook off all the pressure that was hanging on their shoulders.

Coming up in this space: What are our real chances? And we’ll see just how important our match against Holland (and finishing top of Group C) is for Argentina.

The Perfect Performance (June 16th)

Argentina 6 - Serbia & Montenegro 0

How to keep the cool? How can I calm down and stop the hype that is starting to grow everywhere in Argentina and (for what I read around the internet) all over the World?

It’s very hard to do it and honestly, I don’t want to keep the cool!

Because I’ve been keeping it for 8 years now (since Holland knocked us out of France 98) and because for once and forever, the ghosts of Korea-Japan 2002 have been killed, buried and erased! I know if Ivory Coast beats Holland and Serbia and Holland beats us, then there is a chance we’ll be out of the World Cup, but frankly, I don’t see that happening.

We played the best football we played since USA ’94 (before Diego got suspended). We showed a great team spirit and we kept going forward looking for more goals. In that sense, we’ve learned from our mistakes against Ivory Coast and never sit back to defend the early lead.

25 passes!!!!! Almost every player touching the ball, several touching it more than once in the same action and a lovely back-heel pass by CRESPO followed by a great finish by CAMBIASSO. That was a moment of brilliance. The best goal of Germany 2006 by a mile and (I don’t want to lose my cool!!!) one of the best collective efforts in the history of the World Cup.

That was our second goal. Maxi RODRIGUEZ opened the scoring in the sixth minute. A key to win in confidence and to control the game from the start.

SAVIOLA was brilliant. He had a saying in all of the first three goals. An assist in the first one, a great long pass for CAMBIASSO changing the flow of play in the second goal and a shot stopped by the keeper prior to Maxi’s ghostly appearance to send it home. Again SAVIOLA helped out a lot becoming Argentina’s first defender. He was chasing people all over the field and recovering a lot of balls.

I could go on and on hailing individual performances. I might do it tomorrow in a separate article. But I need to say a couple of things about the two players that were the subject of every prayer. The people’s favourites, the most charismatic players in our team and a two of the best players in the World right now: Lionel MESSI and Carlos TEVEZ.

What a way to debut in a World Cup for the two of them. TEVEZ was the first to jump into the field. I don’t know if it was a known fact, but Carlos TEVEZ was sick yesterday and had to skip a training session. He was vomiting and feeling horrible but he was ready for his moment to come. When he replaced SAVIOLA he showed a lot of eagerness to show what he is capable of, but his first couple of actions were way behind his standards. He started to get frustrated and he needed to get something going and when he received the ball from RIQUELME in the 84th minute with the score 4-0, he started his run towards the goal and nutmegged a defender and kept going, was dispossessed by another defender TEVEZ tackled him slightly with the outside of this right boot and he created his own chance. He had only the keeper to beat and like if he was a 40-year veteran he kept the cool (I don’t want to keep the cool!) and he perfectly fooled the keeper, scoring what I hope is the first of many World Cup goals for Carlitos!

MESSI had to wait 75 minutes before taking Maxi RODRIGUEZ’s place. He looked nervous when he was sitting in the bench. He was chewing something, a piece of plastic, or something. He couldn’t wait for his moment to come. But then, when he had to go out there and perform, he did it! He went for it in every ball he touched. He played 15 minutes and ended the match with a goal and an assist! He outran everybody through the left hand side of the attack and then he sent a cross for Hernan CRESPO who came from behind and was faster than Dejan STANKOVIC to touch it and score our fourth goal.

Then RIQUELME and TEVEZ linked up very well and Carlitos was bright enough to see MESSI running through the right. TEVEZ sent a perfect through pass for MESSI and the Barcelona star scored with his right foot (not his favourite) to finish the scoring.

6-0. Our biggest World Cup win since that controversial 6-0 win against Peru in Argentina 1978. This one had nothing controversial about it. This one was flawless. This one was special. This one was bigger and heavier than the ghosts who were behind us since Korea-Japan. This one showed the best talents of this generation having their World Cup debut and coping with pressure in an amazing fashion. This one keeps us alive in the Group of Death and let us in the driving seat. This one is killing me, because from now on, I have no chance of keeping the cool!

Waiting to see our MESSIah (June 14th)

Three points in the bag. Watching every team in the World Cup play (including our mighty neighbours, the Brazilians), I’ve got say in our day, we can beat anyone.

There are, however, a lot of perils and hidden enemies in every corner. With the same scenario (a narrow win against an African team in our debut and playing in the ‘Group of Death’) we faced England four years ago and we lost 1-0 (Beckham from the penalty spot) and then we crashed dramatically with a draw against Sweden in the third match.

Now there are people looking very confident with our team and to some extent they are underestimating Serbia & Montenegro. I’m not one of them. I do feel confident and I like our team, but for no reason in this world, I’ll count the three points against Serbia & Montenegro before the final whistle.

If we do that, then we will have to look no further than to ourselves to look for our most dangerous enemy. I think in a way, José PEKERMAN did it against Ivory Coast. With a lot of water still running in the second half, he made a couple of conservative substitutions and we ended up risking a result we worked very hard to get in the first half.

The latest news in our preparation for this Friday’s crucial second group match are the probable inclusion of Luis ‘Lucho’ GONZALEZ in the starting line-up. He’ll replace Esteban CAMBIASSO in an attempt to improve what was our weakest link against Ivory Coast: midfield.

Lucho GONZALEZ will leave more room for MASCHERANO in the centre of the field for him to do what he does best: run around stopping opposing midfielders and stealing a lot of balls.

Skipper Juan Pablo SORIN will help out also in midfield so Lucho GONZALEZ and Maxi RODRIGUEZ will have a little more liberty trying to run forward and help RIQUELME-SAVIOLA and CRESPO. This trio is confirmed and they will play again from the start.

I expect Serbia & Montenegro to feel the need to do what they didn’t against Holland: attack from the start.

The Serbs’ main strength during their qualifying campaign was their defense (only 1 goal conceded –against Spain in Spain!-) and based on that solid back line, they punished with thunderous counter attacks, finished often by Mateja KEZMAN and Savo MILOSEVIC.

Without Nemanja VIDIC (Manchester United), injured for the rest of the World Cup and with some controversies between the manager and his players, they could find in Argentina, a very good incentive to ‘galvanise’ and play without any fear. Those are the most dangerous opponents A draw won’t be a good result for any of the two teams, but it would definitely harm the Serbs’ chances a little bit more than ours. Will they risk to attack Argentina from the start and free their midfielders to send them forward leaving their backs uncovered? Will they wait and see what Argentina proposes? I think no matter what, Argentina has to respect history this time and attack from the very first second. We have to control the ball and the pace of the game and victory will be ours.

I’ve been receiving a lot of messages (muchas gracias! Messages from Indonesia, Somalia, USA, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Australia, people from India, Colombia and Trinidad & Tobago –come on Soca Warriors!- living in the States! Thank you very much for your e-mails) and in most of them there is one question that still has no answer: will Lionel MESSI play in this World Cup?

This afternoon (June 14th) he had to leave the training session with a knock in his left foot but apparently it is not serious and he will be able to play against Serbia & Montenegro if PEKERMAN wants it. I feel the time has come. I feel he will jump to the field at some point during the second half, no matter the result or the circumstances. If we are winning comfortably, to make his debut and gain a precious experience. If we can’t break their defense, to try and do it through his amazing pace and mercurial talent. And if we are losing, because he is the best talent in our team and people will want to have a word or two with PEKERMAN if MESSI is nowhere to be seen in the field.

Will you watch the game? Will you skip a day at the office to follow Argentina? Are you superstitious? Do you have your rituals?

I’ll be watching it. Waking up very early in the morning (kick-off is at 10 AM but I want to see all the previous shows starting probably at 7 AM!). We’ll be four people in front of the TV and I expect a thousand screams (hope they are all for the good reasons!) and a lot less food for breakfast (can you eat before the match????).

I can’t wait for Friday! Bring it on!


Living in the Group of Death (June 10th)

Argentina 2 - Ivory Coast 1

Ever since we knew Ivory Coast was in our group and we had to play our first game against them, we thought the worst things you can imagine. After beating them in Hamburg today I can say that WE WERE RIGHT TO DO SO!

That makes this win even sweeter. I hate to hear people in Buenos Aires saying that Ivory Coast was not a real test and that they didn’t have a good side at all. That’s a tendency we have in Argentina. If we win, the rival was weak. If we lose, we are rubbish. I hate that. And I’m starting to see it once again.

I have to say, however, that Argentina was superior during the first half and we went up 2-0 deservingly.
After a shaky start and some very tense legs (specially in our midfielders), we started taking control of the game. RIQUELME was clinical in the way he led our offense and we had Ivory Coast on their back foot.

I met up with my friends from college (10 years after and for our 3rd World Cup in a row!) and we all jumped with our hands to the air when AYALA headed the ball towards the goal and TIZIE (in my opinion) stopped it behind the line. That would have been 1-0 to Argentina and a little bit of calm would have followed. The referee and his linesman didn’t see it, so it was play on.

A few minutes after that controversial play, RIQUELME sent the ball to the box and after a lucky rebound, Hernan CRESPO sent our country into delirium! That’s the essence of the strikers: being in the right place at the right time.

We saw our best football after that and it was clear our team was leaving behind the anxiety.
SAVIOLA was one of PEKERMAN’s bets and he paid out big time for our manager in a moment of brilliance by RIQUELME. When Javier ran towards the goal, Roman sent a perfect pass behind the defense and the former Sevilla striker sent it home with a lovely first touch.

2-0 and we were ready to party. But the substitutions PEKERMAN made in the second half were our biggest mistake.

With ten minutes into the second half I said to my friends: ‘Despite the result, Ivory Coast is playing a great game!’ That means they needed no help. They logically started to throw attackers to the field (DINDANE, KONE) and we took them out!
PALACIO in for CRESPO had little to discuss. One striker out, one speedy forward in. Maybe to open up some spaces and take advantage of PALACIO’s pace on the flanks. But to take SAVIOLA out and replace him with Luis GONZALEZ was a bad move. I guess PEKERMAN tried to add somebody who could win a couple of battles in midfield and help RIQUELME in keeping possession of the ball. But in reality, the result was awful. We never played the way we could and we let Ivory Coast to believe and to try and go for a fantastic comeback. To make matters worst, everybody in the stadium (apart from the big mass of Argentines –with Diego MARADONA leading the lot!-) started to support the Africans and to boo our players.

That led to DROGBA’s equaliser and almost 10 minutes of the same old fear we felt ever since the World Cup draw took place. We were horrible during those last minutes and we could have ended up the day in tears and crying for blowing up a 2-goal lead.

3 points are in the Bank now and that’s a very good thing in the Group of Death. Goal difference could have been better, but at least we won.

MESSI, TEVEZ, AIMAR are still to play and to have them fresh and willing to show the World what they are capable of makes me feel positive too.

Now I can’t wait for next Friday (and Serbia & Montenegro) to come!

To finish this wrap up of the game, I’m going to pick my man of the match and I’ll give a few extra mentions:

Man of the match:
Javier SAVIOLA. Fast on and off the ball. Fantastic finish to put Argentina 2-0 and very handy to help RIQUELME in the creative aspects of the game.

Roberto AYALA. Rock solid to control DROGBA. Had a goal not seen by the referee and made no mistakes during the whole game.

Roberto ABBONDANZIERI. With a thousand critics breathing in his neck and waiting for him to drop the ball or concede an easy goal, he came out with his best performance in our National Team, made a great save and started a couple of counter attacks with some impressive long passes.

Best of the rest:

CRESPO scored and that’s all you ask from your strikers. RIQUELME had a assist and that could prove vital and even win you a game in tournaments like the World Cup.

Time to Tango! (June 10th)

Argentina is set to face Ivory Coast to start the action in Group C. The line-up has been confirmed and people will have to wait if they want to see Carlos TEVEZ and Lionel MESSI in action.

ABBONDANZIERI will be between the three posts and this is his great chance to prove his critics wrong and start gaining some confidence.

A back line formed by BURDISSO, AYALA and HEINZE trying to control Didier DROGBA and either KALOU or DINDANE (whoever Henri MICHEL decides to pick to help the Chelsea hitman upfront).

Juan Pablo SORIN will start as a left back but will join the midfielders and eventually will end up helping the striking force. In other words, he will be his usual self and will run all over the pitch, depending on the result and the nature of the game.

CAMBIASSO and MASCHERANO will have defensive duties in midfield, covering Maxi RODRIGUEZ and RIQUELME’s backs. These two will be more involved on offense. Specially, star playmaker RIQUELME. I think if he manages to find his rhythm and put the ball under his right foot, Argentina will have reasons to smile after the match.

Javier SAVIOLA will be Hernan CRESPO’s partner up front and will try and win the battle against a tough Ivorian back line through speed and first touches. In case he can’t do it, PEKERMAN can use TEVEZ and/or MESSI to help out.

CRESPO will have a special ingredient to his first start in a World Cup match (this is his 3rd World Cup but he was a substitute of legendary Gabriel BATISTUTA in France 98 and Korea-Japan 2002), this will be a head-to-head fight between Chelsea strikers: DROGBA vs. CRESPO. They started to share the field a little bit more in the last few months of the Premiership last season and this could be the first time they’ll be on the pitch for the entire match. Only this time they’ll be wearing different colours and they won’t be smiling at each other after the kick-off.

Plenty of things to look forward to.

I remember Italy ‘90 and Argentina being defeated by an impressive Cameroon side. In USA ‘94 we defeated Nigeria 2-1 but it was the second group match. The Super Eagles got their revenge when they beat us 3-2 in the Gold Medal Match at Atlanta ‘96. Then in France ‘98 we didn’t have African opposition and it was Nigeria again in 2002. That was another World Cup debut for us and BATISTUTA gave us the winner to start what we though was going to be a great campaign and instead…ended up in tears. Let’s hope for a similar result today, but a different outcome for our stay in Germany. May it be long and pleasant!

I’m not one to forecast results. There is a little bit of superstition in me so forgive me if I’m not brave enough to give you my prediction.

Before I finish, I would like to thank each and every one of you who have been in touch with me by e-mail. Your views have been great and we share a lot of concepts regarding our players, our tactics and our chances in this World Cup.
Thanks to you, this time I will think of those hundreds and hundreds of Argentina fans living in every corner of the World and supporting the ‘Albiceleste’ with real determination and unrivalled passion!

You have put my National Team on a new perspective in my eyes and again, thank you for that!

I want to have your thoughts on Argentina's performance once the match is over and how and where did you watch the match wherever you are in the World!


A World Cup country (June 8th)

As the debut against Ivory Coast gets closer and closer and PEKERMAN looks almost sure to start with SAVIOLA and CRESPO up front, I would like to invite you to play a little game with me. Are you ready? OK, here we go:

Imagine Carlos TEVEZ asking the crowd for support, then running at high speed with nobody around him and the whole stadium preparing to celebrate as he jumps before the defining moment. Picture Juan Pablo SORIN ready to dive (er…hmmm…yeah…you know…we are from Argentina!) as every single spectator hold his breath waiting for the judge verdict.
Now close your eyes and think of Roberto AYALA in his very own elegant style, waltzing through the Ivory Coast front line after coolly dispossessing them. And finally, here´s Lionel MESSI, swinging up and down like if he had wheels instead of studs under his boots.

I won´t ask you for much more things to imagine. Just try and figure what could happen if all the things you´ve pictured in your brain throughout the first paragraph DON´T take place in a football pitch but in several different sporting stages? What could happen if these four excellent players where not football icons but something else?

I know, I know, unless you´re out of your mind, you don´t understand a single word I´m saying. Need help? Check out this link and see what I mean:

Those words in the end of this TV commercial clearly say: “Lo de ellos es el fútbol. Vamos Argentina” (Their stuff is football. Come on Argentina).

This is just one little example of what you can see if you watch TV in Argentina these days.

Screens all over our country are invaded by football and temperature is rising as the World Cup Fever approaches its climax.

24-hour coverage is a must for the biggest sports channels in Argentina and you can see some journalist broadcasting live at 11 PM (Buenos Aires) while they are in Germany, awake at from Germany at 4 AM and with only a few hours before another training session starts for Argentina in the tiny German town called (here I go…) Herzogenaurach (Thank you spell check!).

Even the gossip shows are all about the World Cup these days. You see people totally not interested in football, all of a sudden wearing Argentina´s colours and talking about MESSI, TEVEZ and RIQUELME.

I’m glad it is like that. I would hate to live in a country where the World Cup is ignored completely. I would also hate to see what happened in 2002 here in Argentina, when if you didn´t have satellital TV with those giant dishes only money can buy, you were out of the action.

This time around, all of the World Cup matches will be broadcasted (granted it´ll be through cable TV, but it´s very easy to have access to it in Argentina) and whenever Argentina plays, everybody will be able to watch it live in all of our 5 public TV stations (plus one cable channel). That means if you don´t want to watch Argentina in this World Cup and you are in our country in June-July, you better turn the TV off and go for a walk in the park…I can guarantee you…nobody will bother you!

Just try and don´t bother us, the real football people, OK?

The first and only test match (May 31st)

With a little more than a week to go, Argentina defeated Angola 2-0 in our only friendly match before the World Cup.

It was a positive test and the most important thing is that we had no injuries to regret and some of our key players seem to be recovering their form.

Angola are not the rivals that will put you under a real, dangerous, tricky test. We won’t be facing a team as weak as Angola in the first round, let alone the following stages in Germany 2006, so it was not a matter of Argentina using Angola to create antibody to use against Ivory Coast, Serbia & Montenegro or Holland. Angola was more of a sparring partner than anything else. Argentina needed to see if Gabriel HEINZE was 100% recovered from his knee injury, to see if Lionel MESSI was ready to run at defenders the way he used to and at the same time, to see if the rest of the team is in good form.

Based on what Argentina showed tonight, I can say that we have more than a few positive aspects and very few worrying things.

On the bright side of life we saw a solid defensive line that can adapt to different situations during a game and play with three or four men (with SORIN playing as a midfielder, leaving BURDISSO, AYALA and HEINZE behind when Argentina is in possession).

A couple of restless retrievers in MASCHERANO and CAMBIASSO in midfield, and the ever-present Maxi RODRIGUEZ running up and down the right hand side of the field.

RIQUELME is supposed to be the axis in which all the clever football and the through passes are supposed to come to life. Unfortunately this time he was not a factor and he couldn’t finish none of the attempts he had against Angola. His critics talk about his lack of speed but that’s exactly one of the things I think can be counted as RIQUELME’s attribute. We can name 100 players with lots of pace and stamina, but RIQUELME can be lethal when Argentina are winning and need to keep control of the ball or simply when what you need is someone to rule the pace of the game and dictate the way your team should attack by discovering the opposition’s weaknesses. He was unable to do it against Angola, but he is capable of doing it any day of the week. Plus, there are people saying Argentina rely only on RIQUELME, and the fact that PEKERMAN’s team was able to overcome a bad night by the Villarreal’s playmaker is another positive sign.

SAVIOLA and CRESPO didn’t score, but they played well. But the best news came in the second half when Lionel MESSI had the chance to play a few minutes. He is recovering from an injury sustained against Chelsea in March and I’m happy to see that he appeared to have shaken it away. He was mercurial tonight and when AIMAR came close to him, we were able to witness some sensational moves and a potential partnership to be used during the second half of each game at the World Cup.

Carlos TEVEZ is another of the strong weapons Argentina have up front and he only played 15 minutes tonight, but don’t count him out.

Angola might not be as strong as Ivory Coast, but if on June 10th at Hamburg, Argentina manage to play the level of football we’re capable of playing there should be plenty of chances to earn all three points in our World Cup debut.

23 to represent 38 millions (May 15th)

A few days ago a friend of mine told me to get my hands on the latest issue of FourFourTwo, a great football magazine published in England. Hailing from its cover you could see the likes of Lionel MESSI, Juan Roman RIQUELME, Hernan CRESPO and Juan Pablo SORIN, all of them behind the suggestive headline: 'ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK!'

Well, now that we know the 23 players PEKERMAN is taking to the World Cup, I think the headline in that magazine is spot on: 6 attacking players, a very offensive-minded midfield (with Cambiasso and Mascherano as the only two defensive midfielders by definition) and then the defenders, because Pekerman has to take them to Germany too, hasn't he?

Being a fan of attacking football, I'm quite happy with this list. But I'm also a little bit concerned about the lack of defensive options if things go wrong during a game or the entire tournament. Here's the list and my two-line opinion about each player:

1. Roberto ABBONDANZIERI (Goalkeeper, Boca Juniors -ARG-): Never played for Argentina as good as he does it for Boca. But he's a great keeper and excels in penalty shoot-outs.

2. Roberto AYALA (Defender, Valencia -ESP-): One game away from the century of caps. Proven defender with experience but I think he is past his prime.

3. Juan Pablo SORIN (Midfielder, Villarreal -ESP-): PEKERMAN's captain. Can play defense or midfield but he is also always present in the opposition box as a bonus forward. Let's pray he is not our ONLY option up front (like he ended up being in 2002).

4. Fabricio COLOCCINI (Defender, Deportivo La Coruρa -ESP-): After seeing him failing to cover Adriano in the Copa America's final (specially in that last play when Adriano sent the match to the penalty shoot-out), I just hope we don't face Brazil with him in our starting lineup.

5. Esteban CAMBIASSO (Midfielder, Internazionale -ITA-): Had a great season for Inter. Experienced young player, great combination of tackling, positioning and passing. Playing under Pekerman since he was 15.

6. Gabriel HEINZE (Defender, Manchester United -ENG-): Coming back from injury but a great option considering he can play in every position in defense.

7. Javier SAVIOLA (Forward, Sevilla -ESP-): The victim under BIELSA (he was cut-out of the 2002 World Cup squad and players like Claudio LOPEZ made the trip!). Had a great season for Sevilla (top scorer in the winning UEFA Cup campaign) and always found the back of the net (River, Barcelona, Monaco...).

8. Javier MASCHERANO (Midfielder, Corinthians -BRA-): He runs and runs and rund bossing around in midfield. He's everywhere and he makes the big pitches in Brazil look like a little garden. he comes!

9. Hernan CRESPO (Forward, Chelsea -ENG-): Finally he is going to a World Cup as the main option up front. Always in BATISTUTA's shadow he now has the chance to show his scoring credentials and convince the doubters in Argentina.

10. Juan Roman RIQUELME (Midfielder, Villarreal -ESP-): He'll be wearing the mythical number 10. He finds in Pekerman his greatest admirer after suffering under BIELSA's reign never being called up. Failed to score that crucial penalty against Arsenal in the Champions League but is poised for a great World Cup. If he fails...Argentina will fail too.

11. Carlos TEVEZ (Forward, Corinthians -BRA-): I can't believe how can a small guy like him be so incredibly strong! I wish he starts up front with CRESPO and MESSI. If he does so, he'll be one of the World Cup's 3 best players.

12. Leonardo FRANCO (Goalkeeper, Atletico Madrid -ESP-): Established as one of the best keepers in La Liga. Won a Youth World Cup with PEKERMAN and tells great jokes. You've got to take him!

13. Lionel SCALONI (Defender, West Ham United -ENG-): Crucial under PEKERMAN at Under-20 level, but struggle to become a first team regular in Deportivo and just started to fight for a place at West Ham. ZANETTI was a better option in my eyes.

14. Rodrigo PALACIO (Forward, Boca Juniors -ARG-): The only field player who plays in our local league. Has a great combination of pace and skill. He could torment a few defensive lines coming from the bench. Could use his surprise effect given he is not well known in the rest of the world.

15. Gabriel MILITO (Defender, Zaragoza -ESP-): Would have loved to go to Germany with his brother (Diego, forward for Zaragoza too). Solid performer, strong, fast defender who could easily be on Ayala's heels to push for a starting place.

16. Pablo AIMAR (Midfielder, Valencia -ESP-): Was one of the big question marks when PEKERMAN took the team to a retreat and Aimar wasn't part of the group. But is one of PEKERMAN's talismanic players and adds a quality option in the creative aspect of the game.

17. Leandro CUFRE (Defender, AS Roma -ITA-): A surprise on this list. Walter SAMUEL is not being considered by PEKERMAN and in terms of pure form in recent campaigns, he has a point. CUFRE can play in different positions and also won a Youth World Cup with Jose. But I would have taken Martin DEMICHELIS so to have another option at defensive midfielder.

18. Maximiliano RODRIGUEZ (Midfielder, Atletico Madrid -ESP-): A road-runner who can cover defensive positions in midfield and can arrive very frequently to scoring positions. Has a knack for scoring and I fancy him getting a couple of goals in Germany.

19. Lionel MESSI (Forward, Barcelona -ESP-): The best young player in the world (beating Wayne ROONEY to the prize). He has a devastating pace and magical control. Could tear the top defensive units apart. Could be Argentina's super-sub if PEKERMAN is not brave enough to use him as a super-starter.

20. Julio CRUZ (Forward, Internazionale -ITA-): It would have been very unfair if he was left out again. In a team (Inter) in which ADRIANO played more minutes this season, Julio 'The Gardener' CRUZ scored one more goal than the mighty brazilian. That says it all. A great back up for CRESPO.

21. Nicolas BURDISSO (Defender, Internazionale -ITA-): After overcoming a family problem, he returned to Inter and played greatly. He is another player who can perform in every position of the backline.

22. Luis GONZALEZ (Midfielder, Porto -POR-): As quiet as he is talented. Have just won the double in Portugal (League and Cup) and was Porto's top-goalscorer in the Superliga. A significant feat considering he has just arrived and he plays in midfield.

23. Oscar USTARI (Goalkeeper, Independiente -ARG-): The best prospect of a goalkeeper we have in Argentina. Has a future in Europe and will gain experience by joining the team in Germany.

As I mentioned before, I'm quite happy with this list, even though if it was up to me, Javier ZANETTI would be playing his third World Cup. Other than that, I feel sorry for Martin DEMICHELIS who is an established player for Bayern Munich and the young Sergio AGÜERO who will be a star in South Africa 2010 with 4 seasons in Europe's top level. You'll see!

Now mis amigos, it's time to ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK!