FIFA World Cup 2010 (ESPN)- So Argentina finally look like a team. And Diego Maradona finally looks like a coach. If nothing catastrophic happens against Mexico on Sunday, both players and manager will have earned the respect they had been demanding for quite a long time.
Believe it or not, the team with the best first round record in the World Cup was barely considered as such four months ago, not to say last year, when the ticket to South Africa was far from secure. And yet, it is the same team, with the same names and the same manager. So what happened in-between?
The quality of the squad was never in doubt. Especially in attack, since Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero are among the most feared goalscorers in the world. But Argentina have top-class names in every position: Walter Samuel, Martin Demichelis and captain Javier Mascherano would probably make the starting XI of any other national team in South Africa.
However, Maradona struggled to make them work together. Throughout a difficult qualifying campaign, the stars never showed any understanding of the concept of collective work and the coach was under heavy fire for his lack of tactical planning and the enormous number of players he called up.
If there was a trace of any plan, it showed that Maradona would rather wait and counter-attack, something which went against a long history of Argentine football and even against Maradona’s own philosophy as a player. The system worked fine in a friendly against Germany, won 1-0 by Argentina in March, but still, much more was expected from a team that was able to achieve the impossible – that is to make Messi look like an average player.
Maradona insisted, once and again, that he needed time with the whole team. And he finally got it in May. He got his players together and started shaping what he called “the group”. When asked what that meant, he would produce the example of the Argentina 1986 squad: how no-one gave a penny for them and how, after getting together, they vowed they would come back home from Mexico with the trophy.
It is very difficult to evaluate how much that time together has helped, but one thing is true: Argentina have played their best football under Maradona during the group stage games, and are now one of the top contenders to win the World Cup.
Whatever Maradona did, be it tactical or psychological; his squad now looks confident and optimistic both on and off the pitch. It is a team that has finally found its soul.
Maradona himself is changed in at least one respect: still being his usual self, he looks more moderate than ever. Would anyone have imagined Maradona apologising to Michel Platini as he did early this month?
Perhaps Maradona has (finally) grown up. Perhaps he realised that the only way to retain the demi-god status he enjoys was, paradoxically, to start behaving like a normal human being.
If that were true, then perhaps it also explains why Argentina suddenly look so good as a team. Maybe Maradona got a better sense of his strengths and weaknesses as a coach, and that helped him to understand better what kind of players he had available. Hence, Argentina changed (progressed?) from a team that looked too cautious to one that looks eager to take, sometimes, too many risks.
How much credit goes to Maradona for that could be an endless discussion, but there’s no argument about the way Argentina played their three group games: ball control and attack in mind. No more waiting, no more long-range balls, no more Messi the messiah ending up being Messi the messed-up.
Argentina have scored more goals than any other team (seven just like Portugal, who did it in just one game), and still their ratio of goals-scored-per-opportunities-generated is low. But, in yet another piece of Maradona magic he has been able to bring in the right man at the right time.
After Higuain wasted several chances in the opener against Nigeria, he kept him in the starting lineup against South Korea, despite cries to play prolific Diego Milito; Higuain responded with a hat-trick. And when the same Milito spent almost 80 minutes scoreless against Greece, he sent in Martin Palermo, who responded with a late goal to secure the 2-0 win.
There are other Maradona decisions that have paid off. His goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, probably third-choice a year ago, has proved much safer than his predecessors. Maxi Rodriguez, despite a bad club season, becomes a different, and better, player with the national jersey on. Clemente Rodriguez and Nicolas Otamendi provide him with different options in defence, and both were among the best performers against Greece.
The defence: that will be the key in games to come. Argentina have shown some defensive weaknesses that better teams – the ones that actually play the final rounds – could exploit. With less chances against tougher defences, defensive blunders could prove to be too expensive and Mexico will be the first real test.
If Maradona can solve that puzzle as well, then Argentina will be the team to beat. And no matter the end result, he will have the right to be proud about at least one thing: critics won’t be forced to into silence by his usual outbursts, but instead by the way his team played football.