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Jun 29, 2007

Crespo equals Maradona's mark for Argentina

MARACAIBO, Venezuela -- The cameras were rolling at Argentina's postgame press conference, the room was hushed, yet the exasperated TV cameramen still couldn't hear what Argentine forward Hernan Crespo had to say. The frustration became so palpable that some were audibly exhorting the Inter Milan striker to speak up. The reluctant star did not oblige, giving his responses in a voice that was as soft as his smile was faint. Not that it mattered to him. Crespo, with two goals in Argentina's 4-1 victory over the United States, was content to let his play speak for itself.

These days, finding Crespo in the spotlight with Argentina is becoming more of a rarity. Most of the buzz surrounding the team is focused on the creative artistry of Juan Roman Riquelme and the dynamic runs of Lionel Messi. Messi in particular, is the current darling of the Argentine public. At the team's hotel, his replica shirt can be seen everywhere, especially in light of the Diego Maradona-like goal he scored for Barcelona against Getafe in this year's Copa del Rey. And while both players showed their quality on Thursday, it was the team's silent assassin, Crespo, who delivered when it mattered most.

After the U.S. had taken a shock 1-0 lead courtesy of Eddie Johnson's ninth-minute penalty, it was Crespo who helped calm his side's nerves when he slammed home a rebound from Riquelme's deft chip just two minutes later. The Argentine forward then nearly put his side ahead just before halftime, when his header from a corner kick was parried away by American keeper Kasey Keller. And with thoughts of a draw beginning to creep into the crowd's thoughts, it was Crespo's authoritative finish in the 64th minute that opened the floodgates, and sent the Albiceleste on their way to a comfortable victory.

That goal was Crespo's 34th for Argentina in international competition, equaling the mark of Diego Maradona himself. Given such a place in the country's soccer history, and after being named Man of the Match for his performance on Thursday, you would think that Crespo would have allowed himself to bask in the afterglow of these achievements. Yet afterwards, Crespo was every bit the humble player that Argentina head coach Alfio Basile appreciates, praising his opponents and quickly diverting attention from his own accomplishments.

"The Americans worked very well tactically," Crespo said through an interpreter. "They managed to limit our space, especially that of Riquelme."

As for equaling Maradona's mark, Crespo added, "For me, it's an honor to equal the number of goals by Diego."

Instead, it was left to Basile to engage the assembled media, not that he minds. The man they call "Coco" has the kind of presence that dominates the room, and he was more than happy to take the spotlight from his reluctant star.

"I thought the Americans tired with the heat," said Basile in his basso-profundo voice that is almost Kissinger-like. "It all worked out in the second half. We tried to play the ball and look for the second goal. When space opened up, things got easier."

Basile also added that he was pleased with his side's calm approach with the score tied.

"It was important that we stayed patient," said Basile. "We stuck to our strategy, and grew as the game went on."

That was especially true of Crespo, at least until the final whistle.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.