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The big heart of John Terry

The Toe Poke about an hour ago
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Canales: Liga MX Best XI

Liga MX 13 hours ago
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May 23, 2006

Tough group could be key to success

All of Argentina drew breath and raised a collective, suspicious eyebrow when it fell to Pele to draw the ball that condemned them to share a group with Holland, Serbia & Montenegro and Ivory Coast.

For the second successive finals the Albiceleste had been placed in the 'Group of Death'. The wounds from their ignominious encounter with the reaper in the Far East in 2002 are still fresh.

But, in a sense, it may prove a blessing in disguise, albeit a very convincing one.

Argentina had travelled to Japan as one of the favourites only to buckle under the weight of their own fans' expectations. The country's parlous political and economic circumstances and the desperate hope of the team offering some much needed succour, however temporary, only added to a sense of responsibility.

The team, in truth, has been living under such pressure since Diego Maradona inspired them to their second and most recent World Cup triumph in 1986. Last time out they had underestimated the task in hand - in Germany the mistake will not be made again. Some enforced realism has, belatedly, descended on the Argentine camp.

That is not to say that a team boasting the shimmering and seductive talents of Lionel Messi, Juan Roman Riquelme, Hernan Crespo and Carlos Tevez are not to be considered genuine challengers; just that a fresh mindset may help to defuse the usual pre-tournament hysterics. No one is talking about who they would like to meet in the final when the task of simply qualifying for the next round is such an arduous one.

Finishing second in the protracted South American qualifying slog, to World Cup favourites Brazil only by virtue of goal difference, pays testament to their quality.

It was a resounding 3-1 victory over their fierce rivals in Buenos Aires that confirmed them as the first qualifiers from the continent and a final record of 10 wins - one more than Brazil - and four draws from 18 matches means they arrive in Germany in good spirits.

Marcelo Bielsa, who had retained the trust of his bosses despite overseeing the 2002 debacle, began the campaign in charge but, with the side struggling for authority and consistency early on, his resignation in September 2004 allowed the promotion of Jose Pekerman, previously in charge of the youth set up.

Pekerman is credited not just with steadying the ship and ensuring the results needed to get to Germany but with returning Argentina to a style of play for which their talents are best suited.

Where once the side was set up to be hard running, mean and uncompromising, the emphasis now is on guarding possession, quick interchanges of passing and a need for the team to control the tempo of matches.

He has, of course, been aided in the pursuit of this by the gifted crop of young players at his disposal. But in this Pekerman can claim to have made his own luck.

A decade overseeing various under-age groups of the national set up brought three world youth titles, the latest of which a Messi-inspired romp in Holland in 2005, and the infusion of professionalism in the long-term development of the stars of tomorrow means Pekerman is now reaping a harvest of which he planted the seeds himself.

Dubbed 'Pekerman's boys', in a recent friendly against Croatia only Crespo of those who featured outfield was not a graduate of one of his youth sides.

An integrity and commitment to playing the game the right way has also seen an unlikely sea change in Argentinean football, on the international stage at least.

It may surprise to learn that as well as the title, top goalscorer and player of the tournament (both Messi), the most recently decorated youth squad was also awarded the Fair Play award. It's Argentina, but not as you know it.

The return to a playing style more reliant on flair than pugnacity has lifted a football-mad public who have grown wearily accustomed to disappointment and failure in the last two decades.

Victory on home soil in 1978 came at another dark time in the country's history with the ruling military junta, responsible of a series of human rights atrocities, shamelessly exploiting the good will generated by the success for their own nefarious ends.

But by the time Mexico 86 unleashed the majestic genius of Diego Maradona on the world a democratic government was in charge and an optimism swept the nation. A final meeting with the Germans in 1990 offered the chance to equal Brazil's record of three titles in four attempts but an ugly and brutal match did not go their way amid allegations of poor refereeing.

Every tournament since has brought searing expectations matched by crushing disappointment on the same scale.

A quick glance at Pekerman's attacking options more than suggests they are well equipped to end this cycle of under achievement.

With Riquelme dictating play from a position just behind the front two strikers, if the Villarreal man is in the mood, means a killer pass is never far away. Tevez, Messi, Crespo and Julio Cruz, who scored 17 Serie A goals for Inter this season, make up a formidable striking roster with invention and cunning to burn.

Behind the attacking triumvirate Luis Gonzales offers able creative support in midfield whilst Javier Mascherano, whose talents have brought him to the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson amongst others, sits in front of the defence to play the 'Makelele role'.

With little in the way of natural width, much is expected of full backs Fabricio Coloccini and, especially, captain Juan Pablo Sorin going forward.

Sorin, a team-mate of Riquelme at Villarreal, usually plays in midfield or wing-back for the Spanish side and his versatility offers Peckerman options to change formations within games, something he is prone to doing.

It is hard to second guess the coach - he used in excess of 50 players during qualifying and none played more than 13 of the 18 matches - such is his tinkering. Whether this turns out to be a positive zeal for adaptability of a confusing indecisiveness remains to be seen.

What is without doubt is that whatever team he settles on, scoring should not be an issue. Yet there is a vulnerability to a defensive unit blighted by serious injury and the evident lack of a world class goalkeeper.

Boca Juniors stopper Roberto Abbondanzieri is renowned for his success in facing down penalties - a skill not to be undervalued in tournament football - but doubts persist over his ability to command a penalty area and the subsequent lack of confidence this emits to the back four. With little in the way of cover he is assured his place but a costly mistake is not so much feared as expected at any time.

This weakness is compounded by serious injury this season to both first choice centre-backs Gabriels Heinze - who operates down the left for Manchester United - and Roberto Ayala, as well as Mascherano.

The importance to the team of Ayala's canny experience, Mascherano's industry and Heinze's robust tackling have led to many in Argentina allowing themselves to be convinced by the positive spin that they will be well rested when facing players coming off a gruelling European season.

But the argument is a flimsy one. Again, substandard reinforcements could see Argentina facing serious difficulties if any of the trio were to break down.

So Argentina's passionate supporters will look towards Germany more with hope than expectation. But only because they know, from bitter experience, the pain that can come from expectations unfulfilled.

Deep down they will believe, justly, that their team is a match for anyone on their day - including you know who - and have the firepower to end 20 years of hurt.

It seems they have at last beaten their most challenging opponent already, themselves; now all they have to do is overcome seven more.