Diego Armando Maradona made his competitive debut as Argentina manager on Saturday night in a packed Estadio Monumental, with a team shorn of Juan Román Riquelme, who threw a hissy fit retired from the international game the day this squad was announced. Diego’s old shirt – the number 10 – was handed from Román to Lionel Messi, who proved he’s almost as good as Steven Gerrard, as Argentina picked apart a well organised Venezuelan backline in the second half. Messi scored before the break and set up two thereafter as the albiceleste ran out 4-0 victors. Read all about it, then watch the goals right here.
The early exchanges set the pattern for the match. Venezuela had done such a great job of frustrating Argentina in Caracas but for two Riquelme free kicks in Maracaibo at the start of the qualifying campaign, and the gameplan wasn’t drastically different this time. Argentina may have struggled for form under Alfio Basile’s charge last year, but it was clear from the attitude in the Scotland friendly and the performance all round against France that under their idol Maradona, the selección are a different prospect altogether, and the Carribean side weren’t in any mood to try and upset the boat. What they did was set out to hold Argentina off for as long as they could.
It worked rather well. Venezuela were brilliantly well organised and holding out admirably until the 25th minute, when Juan Pablo Carrizo had the ball pinched off his fingertips by Javier Zanetti, and the ex-captain drove up the pitch like a man ten years his junior, crossing the halfway line before feeding Carlos Tevez. The Manchester United forward turned and held the ball just a little while before exchanging passes with Lionel Messi, who cut in from the right to spring the Venezuelan offside trap and cap a glorious move with an effortless finish.
Messi was key to several Argentine attacks in the next twenty minutes but the visitors held firm until the break to leave Maradona’s men with just the one goal to show for their pressure at the interval. That changed very rapidly after the restart, though. In the first minute of the second half, Messi surged down the right and sent in a cross from the byeline for Tevez to volley home and double the lead. Five minutes later, Maxi Rodríguez was the recipient of another cross, this time from his clubmate Sergio Agüero, and the Atlético de Madrid wide man made it 3-0 with a deflected half-volley.
In the 72nd minute the father of Diego’s grandson (who’d been presented to the crowd before the game), Agüero, received the ball from Messi at the end of a nice collective passing move, and burst into the box from the left channel, beating two men before finishing across the goalkeeper to put some deserved gloss on the scoreline. Thereafter Argentina relaxed a little, but the job had been done.
It’s easy to say tonight’s opponents were ‘only’ Venezuela (with no disrespect intended to the visitors), but a performance like this against an organised and determined visiting side, backed up by the showing in Marseilles for the France friendly last month, suggests that Maradona really might have a way of getting the players to pull together.
Diego’s third match in charge (and his first qualifier) brought his third win. If Argentina improve at the same rate in the next 15 months as they have in their last three matches, then the rest of the world had better watch out in South Africa.
World Cup 2010, South American qualifiers, 28th March 2009: Argentina 4 – 0 Venezuela
And that first goal in full…