Argentina host Colombia tonight at 6pm Argentine time (10pm British Summer Time) on the kind of pitch that even Wembley Stadium Ltd. would be embarrassed to see England play on. After Argentine rock band Los Piojos played in El Monumental last Saturday, the AFA have – wait for it – painted bits of the pitch green to make it look a little less shabby. Really. And all this against the only country ever to have beaten Argentina in a World Cup qualifer in Buenos Aires – a defeat that led to current manager Diego Maradona’s return to the selección. It should be interesting.
That 0-5 defeat to Colombia in 1993 is a scoreline that still echoes across South America when the two countries meet, and was one more reason, at the time, for the Colombians to feel they had a real chance at the World Cup in the USA which followed – their elimination due partly to Pablo Escobar’s infamous own goal, leading to his murder weeks later, was the tragic closing chapter.
From Argentina’s point of view, though, the defeat led to a playoff against Australia to qualify for USA ’94, for which Diego Armando Maradona, signed by Newell’s Old Boys to get some playing time again, returned to the team. It’s fitting then, that after another five-goal twonking (the amazing 6-1 win for Bolivia in La Paz in the last qualifier), this time under Maradona, Colombia are the next opposition. This is, as captain Javier Mascherano says, a chance ‘to demonstrate that the Bolivia match was an accident.’
The Liverpool midfielder will be winning his 48th cap tonight (the starting XI is here, in case you missed it yesterday, and is now confirmed), and is aware that as well as the need to improve on the last result, there’s also no room for error in the qualifying campaign as a whole. With four matches remaining, Argentina are fourth in the qualifying table. A win tonight over Colombia (sixth, five points behind their hosts) would virtually secure at least the fifth playoff place for the Albiceleste, but it’s a mark of the iffy campaign they’ve had that their sights are set thus. The chance of defeat doesn’t bare thinking about – it could leave Argentina in fifth place, only two ahead of Colombia, if Uruguay beat Brazil in Montevideo in this weekend’s big international clásico.
The pitch, then, could be an important factor given the starting attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez. Diego Milito’s more physical presence and aerial ability could become important in the latter stages if Argentina’s dream-weavers find the playing surface disrupting their usual games. Colombia, who’ve had fits and starts in this qualifying campaign but who beat Argentina 2-1 in Bogotá back in November 2007, will be hoping for anything from the game. But they might just manage it.
A match report and highlight video will be online on HEGS tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.