Everything you need to know about the shebang in South Africa
Having assured qualification for the next second round with two wins, Maradona surprised nobody by trying out a couple of second-string players against Greece. Having used 108 players in his preparations for the World Cup, nobody expected any less.
Amongst his ‘reserve side’ were a striker who recently won the Italian treble, including the winning brace in the Champions League final. One of the defenders is the player lined up by Milan to rejuvenate their ageing backline. Another of is, of all Argentines, second only to Alfredo di Stefano in his trophy haul. Another can only lay modest claim to three Libertadores winners’ medals.
In midfield, Mascherano was replaced by the architect of the best league side in recent years in Argentine domestic football. And the last new face would be first name on the team sheet in any side other than Argentina.
Between them, Diego Milito, Nicolas Otamendi, Nicolas Burdisso, Clemente Rodriguez, Mario Bolatti and Kun Aguero made up the majority of a new-look Argentina. Not a bad reserve side.
Throw in the late zip and ideas from Javier Pastore, plus the self-perpetuating legend of Martin Palermo with his late goal, and Argentina showed off the array of talent at Maradona’s disposal. They passed the ball around comfortably, rode the lunging Greek challenges, and secured a 100% record in the group phase, while resting big-name players in the process.
"Argentina celebrate again", wrote Clarin. La Nacion relished in "the world talking about Argentina". Olé invited supporters to choose the headline, so predictably most revolved around Martin ‘The Titan’ Palermo with predictable contributions… Pagina 12, meanwhile, pointed to something that those who don’t have goldfish memories are thinking. "They don’t stop surprising us."
Argentina are now amongst the favourites to win the tournament, despite the popular pre-World Cup opinion being that Maradona has no idea what he's doing, that the team's dire, that they’d implode and would be packing their bags much, much sooner rather than later.
Three wins in the group phase have changed the headlines, but have changed nothing from the chaotic build-up. The qualifiers were still a mess of internal wranglings, shocking displays, eccentric improvisation and soap opera media wars.
But we’ve all forgotten about Riquelme. Losing to Bolivia to 6-1 is a mere anecdote. Does anyone care about Zanetti or Cambiasso? For now, frankly, the answer is no.
"It’s do or die now," says Maradona. For now, even if it seemed unthinkable three months ago, they’re very much doing.
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