It’s been a qualifying campaign no-one who followed it from start to finish will ever quite manage to forget, but eventually, somehow, in spite of their manager, their opponents and – let’s face it – their own often atrocious performances, Argentina have qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And given the complaints from some quarters about the lack of quality in this season’s domestic league, here’s an irony: for the second match running, an Argentine-based player scored a late winner.
Six minutes remained of normal time when Mario Bolatti swept home the loose ball which bounced to him following a Seba Verón shot from a free kick worked across the area. Chile, managed by Marcelo Bielsa, were as good as their boss’s word and beat Ecuador in Santiago despite already having qualified, to ensure that even Uruguay, as losers of this match, aren’t eliminated but claim a playoff place.
Argentina went into the game knowing that a draw was the minimum requirement and for once, in the highest-pressure game of all their high-pressure qualifiers, they looked controlled and assured in the early stages at the Estadio Centenario. They didn’t look very creative. Lionel Messi dropped deep to get the ball but had few options ahead of him to look to, Gonzalo Higuaín was isolated at times, and Ángel Di María had the only real effort of the first half from a long way out, easily saved by Néstor Muslera.
But it was the more defensive players who’d been given a clear task to protect the point Argentina needed tonight, and they shone. Martín Demichelis looked like he’d never been away at centre back, Gabriel Heinze put in a solid shift back at left back (though he should have been sent off for a second yellow a couple of minutes before the goal) and Jonás Gutiérrez’s indefatigable legs gave the defence an outlet to such an extent that at times, it didn’t look like a ridiculous decision to call up a second division player.
Juan Sebastián Verón rolled back the months to rediscover his vintage form of Estudiantes’ Copa Libertadores-winning campaign, an oasis of serenity amidst Argentina’s highly charged, intensely focussed defence and midfield. As the second half wore on, defensive substitutions were made – by Maradona, or by Carlos Bilardo? – with Fabián Monzón replacing Di María and, with eleven minutes left, Bolatti, Huracán’s defensive midfielder, coming on for Higuaín.
A free kick from out on the right after José Martín Cáceres had brought Jonás down, earning a second yellow card for his troubles, was worked across to Verón who shot from outside the box with six minutes to go. The ball cannoned off a defender, falling for the debutant Bolatti who swept it into the bottom corner with a swing of his right boot, and the cheering from the Argentine travelling support could probably be heard back across the river in Buenos Aires.
Late on, Carlos Tevez replaced Lionel Messi as Argentina ran down the clock, and Uruguay threw men forward with no more success than they’d had all night. A clean sheet, an away win, an assured performance… Argentina had all of that. But most of all, on Wednesday night, D10s reached the Promised Land. Whether he’s still in charge by the time the selección fly over to South Africa remains to be seen…