Having almost single-handedly inspired his country to World Cup glory in 1986, Diego Maradona will this summer take part in his first tournament since 1994 as he returns with Argentina, this time as manager. Having endured a tumultuous qualifying campaign which only saw La Albiceleste secure its place in South Africa with a dramatic late win over Peru in the penultimate round, Maradona will be looking to steady the ship ahead of his side’s opening Group B match against Nigeria on 12th June.
Despite drawing heavy criticism for his apparently scatter gun selection policy during qualifying, there have been signs in recent months that El Diego may have finally settled on the group of players and the tactical system he intends to use in South Africa. A 1-0 friendly win over Germany at the start of March suggested that Maradona will favour an attacking 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 formation which sees Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron sitting in the centre of midfield, with Jonas Gutierrez and Angel Di Maria in the wide positions. Up front, Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain leads the line, whilst Lionel Messi enjoys the relative freedom of the second striker/inside-right role. Indeed, Argentina’s hopes could well hinge upon the ability of Maradona to get the very best out of Messi, the diminutive forward now arguably the best player in the world. In qualifying Messi looked a shadow of the player he is in La Liga, frustratedly going in search of the ball when service to his area of the field was not forthcoming. Juan Sebastian Veron, a player who has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, will be relied upon to provide Messi with a similar standard of service to that which he receives from Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Camp Nou. If the veteran Estudiantes player can do that, then his side’s chances of mounting a serious bid for honours in the summer will be greatly increased.
Though Argentina’s attacking options look strong – Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Diego Milito are all likely to feature in the squad – , the defence is much more of a worry for Maradona. Walter Samuel aside, La Albiceleste do not possess many defenders with true physical presence, giving the back line something a a flimsy appearance. Furthermore, players such as Javier Zanetti and Gabriel Heinze are now well into their thirties and, now lacking pace, are unlikely to be as effective at full-back as they have been in the past for the national team. This is a potential weakness other teams will undoubtedly look to exploit and something which could, if not managed correctly, prove the downfall of this talented squad. Maradona must not be afraid to bench established names, particularly in regard to the defence, if he feels that to do so would be beneficial to the team collective.
This Argentina squad undoubtedly has the talent to win the World Cup in 2010, but the travails of qualification have left serious question marks over the ability of Maradona to manage at this level. However, El Diego is certainly not short on self-confidence and is an inspiration to many of the players under his stewardship. He may not be a tactical genius, but it would surprise no-one if Maradona was again to answer his critics by delivering football’s greatest prize.
Probable starting XI: Romero (AZ Alkmaar); Otamendi (Velez Sarsfield), Demichelis (Bayern Munich), Samuel (Inter), Heinze (Marseille); Gutierrez (Newcastle United), Mascherano (Liverpool), Veron (Estudiantes), Di Maria (Benfica); Messi (Barcelona), Higuain (Real Madrid)
The Road to South Africa: 4th in CONMEBOL qualification
World Ranking: 7th