Argentina starts in style

Under the admiring gaze of the greatest player they have ever produced, DIEGO MARADONA, Argentina fights off the challenge of the brilliant Ivory Coast who seem to be the best African export to Germany, writes SIMON STONE.

Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast were denied a deserved draw in a pulsating World Cup encounter with Argentina in Hamburg. Under the admiring gaze of the greatest player they have ever produced, Diego Maradona, Argentina seemed set to coast home after Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola profited from the excellent work of Juan Roman Riquelme to give the South Americans a two-goal lead at the break.

The interval scoreline was harsh on the Ivorians, who sped about the pitch like lightning bolts and created a series of half chances, all of which went begging. But, just as the life was starting to ebb from their legs, Drogba turned home an Arthur Boka cut-back eight minutes from time and from that moment on, Argentina were the ones hanging on.

In the end though, from his position in the VIP seats, Maradona was able to raise his arms in triumph, although the manner of victory will probably have not done much for his blood pressure. When the man who almost single-handedly won Argentina the World Cup in 1986 took his place in a capacity crowd, just as the teams were emerging onto the AOL Arena, the photographers did not know where to look.

It did not take them long to train their lenses on the pitch though as the two-time winners emphasised their intent to ensure there is a dual South American challenge to Europe in Germany this summer.

After their disastrous group stage exit four years ago, Argentina are in no mood to book an early flight home this time, even though they have been dumped in the hardest group of all, with Serbia and Montenegro and Holland also lying in wait. And, with `wunderkind' Lionel Messi waiting in the wings to make his entrance, there is enough quality in the ranks to suggest the faith of their fanatical supporters may not be misplaced. But the Ivory Coast can look back on their World Cup bow with equal satisfaction. With a bit more ruthlessness in front of goal, they could easily have snatched a share of the spoils and, while defeat will do little for their chances of advancing to the last 16, with a bit more improvement, a place in the knock-out stage is not beyond them.

On the evidence of the past two years, including a run to the final of this season's African Nations Cup, there is little doubt the Ivorians are their continent's finest export to Germany this summer. Those claims could easily be backed up on their display in the first 45 minutes alone. Mixing skill with industry and an eye for an opportunity, they had Argentina at full stretch for long periods.

If it had not been for Roberto Ayala, they would have created far more than the single clear-cut chance Kader Keita spurned when Drogba set him up with an expertly guided header.

Unfortunately for Keita, his diving header stuck between the legs of Argentinian goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri and with it went his country's hopes of causing a shock.

After making startling progress for over two decades now, even at the rarefied level of elite international combat, there is little the African nations lack. What they do miss though, is the clinical nature of the old order. While their opponents had plenty of the play and threatened at regular intervals, when Argentina clicked into gear, they made it count.

Juan Roman Riquelme remains of interest to Sir Alex Ferguson despite Manchester United's GBP 10m bid for Michael Carrick and it is pretty obvious why. From a position virtually identical to the one from which David Beckham delivered the free-kick which brought England victory over Paraguay in Frankfurt a few hours earlier, Riquelme drifted over a similar set-piece. Drogba went for it with Gabriel Heinze, neither made clean contact and when the ball dropped, Crespo expertly finished.

With Yaya Toure excelling, the Ivorians responded with admirable attacking quality. But, within four minutes of Keita's miss, Riquelme delved into his box of magic tricks again, fed Javier Saviola with a delightful through-ball and the little Sevilla man slid a precise shot under Jean-Jacques Tizie. The half-time score was an injustice. However, having got it, Argentina were in no mood to throw it away.

Content to play on the break, with the excellent Riquelme pulling the strings, they succeeded in quelling the Ivorians' fire, albeit at the expense of a booking for Gabriel Heinze, who was involved in an almost constant running feud with Drogba.

The Chelsea man remained his country's most potent weapon throughout and got the goal he deserved when he finished off Boka's cross.

Despite a lung-busting finale, the Africans could manage no more.

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