We’ve been here before, and there’s not a lot else more to say. In Asunción on Wednesday night, needing a point to remain in the automatic qualification spots for the 2010 World Cup, Argentina slumped to a defeat which sees Paraguay qualify for South Africa. Seba Verón was sent off early in the second half and when a target man was finally sent on, Maradona looked not to ‘Licha’ López, not to Diego Milito… but to Martín Palermo. ¡Andate ya, Diego!
Argentina began the match in fifth place following Ecuador’s comfortable win, 3-1 away to Bolivia (reading this, Diego?), a couple of hours before. They could have been sixth had Colombia not fallen 3-1 to Uruguay in Montevideo, where Argentina will have to travel for their final group match. As on Saturday, they went forward with gusto early on. As on Saturday, they seemed to lose confidence after failing to test their opponents’ goalkeeper early on.
As on Saturday, they fell behind midway through the first half. Controlling a long ball forward with the sublime technique he displays regularly for Club América de México, Salvador Cabañas wriggled through two challenges with consumate ease before playing a through ball down the left channel for Nélson Haedo Váldez to run onto and finish low past Sergio Romero. The Estadio Defensores Del Chaco exploded. Any remaining confidence the Albiceleste had imploded.
Little else was mustered before the break as Argentina limped, shellshocked, to half time, but after the break it didn’t seem very much of substance had been said, aside from the decision to replace Jesús Dátolo, less blameless than most of his more oft-capped teammates, with Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi. In the 52nd minute, Juan Sebastián Verón, the reigning South American Footballer Of The Year, saw red for a second yellow card which could, from some other referees, have drawn a straight red – his tackle was closer to his opponent’s knee than to the ball.
Thereafter Paraguay were able to hold at bay their opponents, who had no ideas, little energy and, if they were motivated by the idea of travelling to next year’s World Cup, didn’t show it. Lionel Messi tried to do too much, and the thought occurs to me that perhaps Barcelona’s trick is to tell him to go and enjoy himself, whilst for Argentina the pressures of his country are laden onto his shoulders. Sergio Agüero, anonymous throughout, was substituted after an hour.
Clearly, Maradona had finally seen the need to play with a proper #9, a centre forward who could get amongst the opponents’ defence and cause some problems. Lisandro López wasn’t on the bench. Neither was Diego Milito. The reason for those exclusions was unknown. Agüero’s replacement, then, was Martín Palermo. Had it worked, some sections of the Argentine media might have praised Maradona’s masterstroke. It almost did – late on Palermo’s fellow pensionable substitute, Rolando Schiavi (who swaps a centre back for a centre back when chasing a game? Maradona) just failed to connect with a Palermo header across goal.
In the end, though, Paraguay had their win, and become the second South American nation to book their ticket to South Africa. Argentina’s next match, against Peru, is one they really ought to win. But then, we’ve said that plenty of times already during this campaign, both before and since Maradona’s appointment. Two matches remain, and automatic qualification is no longer in their hands.
World Cup South Africa 2010 qualifying, 9th September 2009: Paraguay 1 – 0 Argentina