Well, it’s fair to say the sceptics didn’t expect this. The noises coming from the Argentina camp about team unity and just needing to spend some time together look like they weren’t just hot air – on Saturday the selección played a match that was meant to be much harder than their opener, and it ended in a thrashing, Diego Maradona’s men running out 4-1 winners over South Korea with Gonzalo Higuaín – who didn’t even play that well – scoring a hat trick. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was another highly impressive performances, and some of us (yes, ‘us’, I’m not denying my own inclusion) who didn’t think Argentina could possibly go beyond the quarter-finals will be revising our predictions upwards if this carries on.
Higuaín’s hat trick came, ironically, in perhaps the worst performance he’s put in for the national side. He was able to miss another good chance early on, but after the scoring had been opened for Argentina thanks to an own goal from Park Chu-Young after sixteen minutes, he slipped into gear. Higuaín’s first and Argentina’s second was a downward header which, really, Jung Sung-Ryong in the Korean goal should have saved, but it found its way through at the near post and Argentina had a two goal lead. Following Walter Samuel’s injury – a thigh strain he was already carrying going into the game flared up again and he was replaced with Nicolás Burdisso – Martín Demichelis made a hash of controlling the ball, and Lee Chung-Yong capitalised to give South Korea a lifeline on the stroke of half time. Argentina led 2-1.
In the second half, Higuaín added two more, both of them tap-ins, but the simpleness of the finishes belied the incredibly approach play as Lionel Messi, superb again, combined brilliantly with Carlos Tevez and, after the Manchester City man was taken off, his replacement Sergio Agüero to help set Higuaín up. The final goal was perhaps the best of the World Cup so far. Messi was again unlucky not to get on the scoresheet himself – Higuaín’s second came after Messi had hit the post, and La Pulga came within inches of scoring on two occasions – either one, had it gone in, would have been a contender for goal of the tournament.
It wasn’t a flawless performance. Jonás Gutiérrez got, as predicted, more protection from Maxi Rodríguez than he had from Seba Verón on Saturday against Nigeria, but was still sufficiently stretched to pick up a second yellow card which rules him out of the decisive group game against Greece on Tuesday. Demichelis’s error for the South Korean goal was only the most visible part of his underwhelming performance – in the second half South Korea attacked down the right, cutting between Gabriel Heinze’s and Demichelis’s zones of defence, and Yeom Ki-Hun flashed a shot wide when he should really have equalised. None the less, it was a more clinical display than against Nigeria, and the momentum now seems to be building nicely.
Messi’s performance demonstrated, if anyone had doubted it, that he’s now arrived in an Argentina shirt and that Saturday’s game wasn’t just a flash in the pan, and Ángel Di María was a big improvement (if still not exactly spectacular). Man of the match though has to be Carlos Tevez – even if the official FIFA award went to the player who scored the most goals, Higuaín – who showed all the good bits of his performance against Nigeria but cut out the overhit passes and spells of relative anonymity which had slightly dragged down that otherwise excellent showing.
Greece’s comeback (the first of this World Cup) to beat Nigeria 2-1 means Argentina can still go out, but it will take an almighty swing in the goal difference of the group. Maradona’s men are all but through, and will play Greece on Tuesday knowing that a point will confirm their position as group winners. Their most likely opponents, then, in the round of sixteen? It’ll be either a rematch of the 2006 epic against Mexico, or the clásico rioplatense against Uruguay on the world stage.
World Cup South Africa 2010, Group B, Thursday 17th June: Argentina 4 – 1 South Korea
A postscript: Gonzalo Higuaín is only the third Argentine to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Finals. The men who did it previously were Guillermo Stábile, against Mexico at Uruguay 1930, and Gabriel Batistuta on two occasions, against Greece at USA 94 and Jamaica at France 98.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that South Korean journalists were strongly critical of the manager Huh Jung-Moo in the build-up to the game. From the team’s training sessions, it had seemed that after beating Greece the Koreans returned to training the next day and immediately started preparing to play Nigeria, having apparently decided they weren’t going to get anything from Argentina anyway. All the same, they had only two shots fewer than Argentina – the difference was Argentina got five of theirs on target, whereas South Korea could manage only two…
You can follow Argentina’s World Cup campaign and all the winter football news from Argentina via HEGS on Twitter. If you’ve not signed up yet you can do so here.
Photo pinched from ole.clarin.com