Saturday night saw the big South American clásico in Rosario as Argentina hosted Brazil in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, and Diego Maradona’s reign as manager will be marked forever by the result: Argentina lost a qualifier at home for only the second time in their history. The first was the 0-5 loss to Colombia in 1993, and as Brazil ran out 3-1 winners this time round, the hosts’ performance was almost as listless.
Argentina started the better side, winning a corner in the first minute and showing an intent to get towards the visiting goal that brought to mind some of their more confident displays under Maradona to date. Lionel Messi, playing for his country in his hometown, shot just wide from outside the box and minutes later Seba Verón sent a free kick from twenty five yards into the wall. Argentina were pressuring Brazil high up the pitch, and it seemed a matter of time before the breakthrough came.
So it proved. When it arrived, though, it was Brazil, and not Argentina, who took the lead. In the twenty-third minute, Sebastián Domínguez brought Luis Fabiano to ground about thirty-five yards out. Neither Nicolás Otamendi nor Gabriel Heinze picked up Luisão from Elano’s free kick, and the towering Benfica centre back powered a header past Mariano Andújar to give the visitors the lead with practically their first chance of the match.
Just six minutes later the lead was doubled from yet more defensive incompetency. Kaká tried to hit a centre but the ball bounced of Gabriel Heinze and fell for Maicon. The full back’s shot was pushed away by Andújar but it fell right to the feet of Luis Fabiano, and the Sevilla striker continued his fantastic early season form with a simple finish from six yards out.
Just under twenty minutes on and, following two minutes of stoppage time, a strange first half was brought to a close. Argentina had dominated possession and spent far more time in their opponents’ half than Brazil, whilst only picking up on booking (Javier Mascherano for a poorly-timed tackle on Kaká). Brazil, meanwhile, had four yellow cards to their name and had only managed three attempts on goal – but were leading 2-0.
At half time Sergio Agüero replaced Maxi Rodríguez and, with Javier Zanetti pushing into midfield, Argentina tried something approaching a 3-4-3. They were nervous, though, and whilst an attacking trident of Messi, Tevez and Agüero is undeniably high on flair, technique and imagination, it’s low on the kind physicality required against defenders the size of Brazil’s. All the same, the pressure continued and, in the 64th minute, there was daylight when Jesús Dátolo, on his competitive debut, scored with a fulminating drive from well outside the box which flew past Júlio Cesar in the Brazil goal – an even better strike than the one which won the recent friendly with Russia in his first appearance for his country.
Two minutes later, though, Luis Fabiano snuffed out the hope that goal gave Argentina. Running onto a through ball from Kaká he knocked the ball round Andújar, rushing out to claim the ball, and chipped into an essentially unguarded net as Otamendi tried and failed to get back in time to clear.
After that goal, Argentina merely went through the motions and Brazil were easily able to hold them at arm’s length. The spirit drained from the hosts and no more ideas were forthcoming as to how they could force an unlikely point from the match. After three minutes of stoppage time, Colombian refree Oscar Ruiz blew his whistle and Brazil had confirmed their place in next year’s World Cup Finals.
Inexperienced and poor at the back, lacking in options at the front and patient but indirect in midfield, Argentina paid the price for poor organisation and lack of attitude in Rosario. After pushing so hard to get the match moved from the Estadio Monumental and ensure that the conditions were perfect to play football, Maradona failed to remember to actually prepare his team to do just that.
Argentina now have a lot of work on. On Wednesday night they visit Paraguay, no pushovers especially in Asunción, and need to win both that match and a home tie against Peru if they’re to stand a chance of going into the last match with their tickets to South Africa already assured. That last match? A ferry trip across the river to Uruguay. Argentina wouldn’t want to be relying on a result in that fixture if they were playing well. If they’re playing like this, though, they can forget about it.
World Cup South Africa 2010 qualifying, Saturday 5th September 2009: Argentina 1 – 3 Brazil: