Not I. Oh, heavens no. The heavens opened over the Estadio Monumental on Saturday night and, in a frantic finish, a substitute chosen by D10s himself scored the winning goal to keep Argentina – just – on track for qualification to South Africa 2010. Martín Palermo has waited ten years for the chance to atone for those three missed penalties against Colombia in the 1999 Copa América. Tonight, he might just have done it. The goals and the story are right here.
Palermo was a half time substitute, replacing his fellow domestic international, Enzo Pérez, who had a quiet first half on the right of Argentina’s midfield. During that first half, Argentina had dominated possession without imposing themselves. Lionel Messi linked up well with the gladly returning Pablo Aimar, and Maradona should, in my opinion, stick with the double act against Uruguay on Wednesday, but whenever Argentina came forward Peru had two midfielders in front of their back four on the edge of their penalty box, and it was a barrier that proved too much to play the ball through.
On the couple of occasions that they managed to penetrate the Peruvian rearguard, Gonzalo Higuaín – given his first full international cap for Argentina – didn’t manage to put the finishing touch to the move. One attack in particular sticks in the mind: Benfica’s Ángel Di María raced down the left and whipped a ball into the near post which Pipita, closely marked, turned narrowly round the post when the entire stadium thought it was in the net. It was a similar tale of woe until the break, with Peru created barely anything, but holding firm and seriously restricting their illustrious hosts’ chances on goal.
At the break, those who’d bemoaned Martín Palermo’s inclusion in a serious senior national side for actual competitive internationals (not in this quarter of course. I’d never have said anything negative about that) sighed wearily as Enzo Pérez was withdrawn and Martín Palermo sent on to provide a battering ram to Peruvian resistance up front. Within a minute of the restart, Peru had forced a corner, from which Juan Vargas – formerly a team-mate of Palermo at Boca Juniors – smashed a half-volley against the crossbar from well outside the area. As the rain started to fall, Argentina had been warned.
Seconds later, the albiceleste were in front. Aimar cut inside and a quick through ball found Gonzalo Higuaín racing into the right channel. Looking across at the linesman and confirming that he wasn’t offside, Higuaín banished any demons the first half misses may have given him with one sweep of his right boot. A proper striker, given a start and a decent chance, had exploited the space earned him by a proper playmaker’s pass to score for Argentina.
Admirably, considering they had nothing to play for, Peru found the temptation to embarrass a team managed by Diego Maradona too strong to resist, and came out of their shells. As the visitors pressed forward Argentina actually started to look more coherent given some space behind them, with Messi drifting wider and wider to run at his full back and Jonás Gutiérrez eager to help out by overlapping from his position at right back.
Midway through the second half, though, the first match ended and another started. As Higuaín was withdrawn to be replaced by Martín Demichelis in an oddly cautious substitution, the rain was already picking up, and with twenty minutes to go it had turned into a deluge. As the wind also started to roar around El Monumental to such an extent the TV cameras were shaking in the gantries, Peru continued to press.
And when stoppage time began, a mini-match from a different planet started. Ninety minutes of staid toiling from Peru and frustrated dominance from Argentina were forgotten, and one of the craziest four minute periods of stoppage time the football world will see this year unfolded. Peruvian substitute Hernán Rengifo equalised in the 90th minute, after a high hanging cross was stabbed back across goal and Rengifo got to the ball first, wrongfooting Sergio Romero. Argentina were in sixth, and humiliated again.
And then salvation. A corner was poorly cleared in the torrential rain, and when Lionel Messi cut back and played the ball back across goal from inside the box, El Loco Palermo was on hand at the far post to turn it in. For almost the first time in the qualifying campaign, Argentina had shown some character, noticed their backs were up against the wall and just went for it. Maradona dived into the rain-sodden ground in celebration and the entire team mobbed Palermo.
Just to add to the madness, from the restart Peru tried to lob Sergio Romero from the halfway line, and hit the crossbar. If any of the celebrating thousands inside El Monumental noticed, they didn’t show it. The night belongs to Palermo. In the cold light of day there are still questions to be answered ahead of the trip to Montevideo, but for now, one hurdle has been cleared in the most unbelievable of fashions.