October 14th, 2009
10:00 AM ET

Messi holds the key to Maradona's survival

Maradona, despite his god-like footballing status in his homeland, has placed the national football team, an almost sacred entity in itself among the loyal fans of Argentinean soccer, in something of a mess.

Maradona must swallow his pride and play Messi in his best role.
Maradona must swallow his pride and play Messi in his best role.

Argentina have failed to reach the World Cup just once - after a draw against Peru in a qualifer for the 1970 finals in Mexico - and history nearly repeated itself this weekend.

Once again, a draw with Peru would have condemned Argentina to miss the party.

And things looked bleak when, through the driving wind and rain, Hernan Rengifo, a striker who plies his trade in Poland, drew the home side level with Maradona's men.

It looked a dagger blow for Diego's under-performing squad of millionaires and the end of his controversial spell in charge.

But then up cropped one of his selection gambles, Martin Palermo, a striker who played alongside his coach at Boca Juniors in Maradona’s retirement season 12 years ago, to tap in a dramatic winner in the fourth minute of injury time.

Maradona magic or just plain lucky given his messy situation?

Actions on the pitch aside, can you imagine what Maradona’s collective team of doctors were thinking for those three minutes it appeared Argentina would not win?

His blood pressure must have hit the roof and his memorable celebration, sliding full length on the muddy pitch give some idea of his relief at redemption.

And speaking of pressure – has it ever be more intense for Maradona or Argentina than ahead of the Wednesday evening kickoff in Montevideo against Uruguay?

Uruguay also have designs on clinching the fourth and final automatic World Cup spot from South America and are tough at home.

Ecuador, who are favorites to clinch fourth spot, play Chile who are already qualified in third place and may not be too bothered by the outcome.

On top of this, pundits are claiming that the best Argentina can hope for is to clinch fifth in the group and go into a playoff against a team from the CONCACAF region which they would be heavily favored to win.

But Argentina need to improve to even secure the draw they likely require as a minimum and they need their superstar Lionel Messi to step up to the plate.

The Spanish sports newspaper AS is reporting there is a rift between Maradona and his talisman, who is being deployed in a different position than he plays for Barcelona and is apparently disillusioned by the tactics employed by the coach.

Maradona must sort out this situation fast or he will be looking for a new job on Thursday morning, which would be a shame because whatever one's opinion of him, he is box office and the World Cup finals will be the poorer for his and Argentina's absence.

While a World Cup without arguably the best player in the world in Messi is surely unthinkable.

Some heads need to be banged together in the Argentina camp starting with the football icon and his legendary boss.

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Filed under:  Football
September 10th, 2009
04:37 PM ET

Maradona will deliver magic for Argentina

Stop this nonsense talk about Argentina not making the 2010 World Cup finals. Stop it right now.

Maradona needs to work his magic to revive Argentina’s World Cup qualifying hopes.
Maradona needs to work his magic to revive Argentina’s World Cup qualifying hopes.

Can you remember 2002 World Cup qualification, when the shoe was on the other foot? Argentina were waltzing through qualification. They lost just once the entire campaign (away to Brazil), and ended up top of the group, 13 full points ahead of their biggest rivals.

Brazil, meantime, put together a string of performances reminiscent of today’s Argentina: a loss at Ecuador, a home draw with lowly Peru. Their coach, Emerson Leao, was let go in favor of Luis Felipe Scolari. Scolari’s Brazil would immediately lose at Uruguay, and talk of missing the World Cup continued.

Could it happen? Of course not - although it came down to the final day of matches!  Everyone knew they had the players, maybe the best in the world. And they would prove it eight months later - defeating Germany in the World Cup final. You may think I’m nuts, but Argentina will do the same in South Africa. I just can’t figure out if it’s with Maradona or not.

It’s just that level of unpredictability that’s hurt Maradona so far. He’s like a king gone mad - he has the power to do anything he wants, regardless of rationale. He’s lost four of six World Cup matches by giving debuts to players no-one’s heard of, and finding room in his team for old guys it seems he himself could have played alongside - like Palermo and Veron.

Argentina have two matches remaining: at home to Peru and away to Uruguay. Thankfully, they are a month away. Plenty of time for even Maradona to realize the mistakes he’s made.

I don’t think he’s that smart, but I do think he’s magic. He’s already lived a life defined by ridiculous decisions, with highs and lows most of us can’t possibly imagine.

And look where he is now: coaching the two-time World Cup winners, with the second-best player on the planet, Lionel Messi.

It’s not that he’ll make his next team selection with wisdom, it’s more that he can’t possibly do worse. And this time, it’s the very unpredictability that will lift his side, the magic that will work.

Argentina will win both matches and end on 28 points, securing fourth place in the table and an automatic berth in South Africa.

Telling Stat: Take a look at Argentina’s goals for/goals against during 2002 campaign: 42 and 15. Right now it’s 20 and 19.

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Filed under:  Football