Hungry for revenge

THE FORM OF ARGENTINA'S brilliant midfield playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme (in action against Angola in a recent friendly) will be the key to his country's fortunes in Germany.-AP THE FORM OF ARGENTINA'S brilliant midfield playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme (in action against Angola in a recent friendly) will be the key to his country's fortunes in Germany.

The last three tournaments have seen ARGENTINA arrive as one of the favourites only to make a swift exit. They will be determined to make things different in Germany, writes MATIAS GRECO.

The 2006 World Cup could mark the end of the collective pain that Argentina has been carrying since their embarrassing first-round exit four years ago in Japan and South Korea. The twice world champions are not used to departing the competition at the first hurdle and the men in light blue and white do not want a repeat this summer. They are hungry for revenge. In truth, Argentina have endured more sadness than success since reaching the final as holders in 1990. They have also left empty-handed in all senior international tournaments played since 1993, when they won the Copa America in Ecuador. Since then great rivals Brazil have ruled the roost in South America and on the world stage. Two World Cups (1994 and 2002), three Copa America triumphs (1997, 1999 and 2004) and the Confederations Cup last year have all gone to Brazil, while Argentina have claimed nothing. Valencia defender and former national captain Roberto Ayala summed it up by saying: "It's disappointing that our biggest rivals are doing so well while we have not won anything major recently."

For Brazil, the space left by Dunga, Romario, Bebeto and Taffarel has been well filled by a new generation of stars such as Emerson, Ronaldo, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Dida. "They haven't been affected by the generation change and this is important," said Ayala, who has to steer the Argentine central defence in Germany because of the omission of fellow veteran Walter Samuel from the squad. "We have to congratulate Brazil for the job they have been doing. However, we know we have very important players who can make our team as successful as them."

Because of their ages, Ayala, as well as new skipper Juan Pablo Sorin and striker Hernan Crespo know this might be their last World Cup. "I'm angry because I haven't won a title with the national team yet," said Ayala.

"But it's football and I know not everybody can win. I know I've done my best to help Argentina climb up to the top of the world. But if we don't win, I'll still sleep calmly because I did my best." Manager Jose Pekerman is taking an analytical approach to help his nation win its first major trophy since the retirement of Diego Maradona. "In defence, we need more intensive training together, to help all the players get to the World Cup in their best shape," said Pekerman, who is relieved that Manchester United full-back Gabriel Heinze is back to full fitness after missing seven months due to knee surgery.

Heinze and captain Sorin would have to share the full-back responsibilities in the absence of veteran and former captain Javier Zanetti, another of Pekerman's controversial World Cup omissions.

"From midfield on, we have very important players who should play a great World Cup," said Pekerman. All of them have done well when needed. But Javier Mascherano is vital for us to fill the hole left by more offensive players. With him, I think we can play well with three defenders at the back."

Mascherano broke a bone in his left foot last year and spent a worryingly long spell on the sidelines. He returned in February and is expected to be a key man for the South Americans.

As happened four years ago, when they drew England, Sweden and Nigeria, Argentina are again in arguably the strongest group. Pekerman says of his opponents this time: "Ivory Coast are a team with a great present. There is more to them than just Didier Drogba. Serbia and Montenegro have good players like Dejan Stankovic, Savo Milosevic and Mateja Kezman. And Holland depend on their own attitude in difficult and crucial matches."

Getting through the group will be tough. But, deep down, Pekerman knows it is Brazil who pose the biggest threat. "Brazil are the best because of the way they play football. I like their players, their ideas, their football. We have to recognise and accept Brazil's merits," said Pekerman.

On paper, Argentina's squad will be one of the strongest in Germany. They have experience in Ayala and Sorin. They have a nice balance in midfield with Mascherano and Villarreal playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, whose form will have a major influence on Argentina's showing in Germany.

In attack, Argentina has the experienced Hernan Crespo alongside young Carlos Tevez. Throw in the unpredictable teenager Lionel Messi, dubbed `the new Maradona', and it is not hard to see why several people are tipping Argentina for World Cup glory.

However, the last three tournaments have seen Argentina arrive as one of the favourites only to make a swift exit. They will be determined to make things different this time.

THE TEAM

Goalkeepers: Roberto Abbondanzieri (Boca Juniors), Leonardo Franco (Atletico Madrid), Oscar Ustari (Independiente).

Defenders: Nicolas Burdisso (Inter Milan), Gabriel Milito (Zaragoza), Juan Pablo Sorin (Villarreal) Fabricio Coloccini (Deportivo La Coruna), Leandro Cufre (Roma), Roberto Ayala (Valencia), Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United).

Midfielders: Maximiliano Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid), Esteban Cambiasso (Internazionale), Juan Roman Riquelme (Villarreal), Lionel Scaloni (West Ham), Luis Gonzalez (Porto), Javier Mascherano (Corinthians), Pablo Aimar (Valencia).

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Hernan Crespo (Chelsea), Carlos Tevez (Corinthians), Javier Saviola (Sevilla), Julio Cruz (Internazionale), Rodrigo Palacio (Boca Juniors).

Coach: Jose Pekerman. * * * Quiet Man: Pekerman

Very few coaches in the world take charge of a national team without any experience of club management — even less so in such a footballing power as Argentina. But that is exactly what Jose Pekerman did.

Without a single domestic league match to his name in a club dug-out, he was chosen to succeed Marcelo Bielsa due to his extensive and successful career with the Argentinian national youth teams. Pekerman keeps a low profile and seldom becomes drawn into any public disputes. Indeed, that might be the key to his great success.

In the 1970s, Pekerman was shining as a midfielder with Argentinos Juniors.

He had begun his professional career in 1969 and, in 1975, left Argentina for Colombia to play for Medellin until 1978, the year Argentina celebrated their first World Cup title.

Pekerman suffered a serious injury that forced him into early retirement at 29. In 1982, he qualified as a coach and has never looked back. Pekerman was the man behind three World Youth Cup successes in 1995, 1997 and 2001 with Argentina, silencing the critics who questioned his appointment.

Those youth tournaments were so significant for Pekerman that his pets are called Qatar, Malaysia and Argentina, in honour to the three countries where Argentina won those championships. Now, after 12 years managing teenagers in the national team, plus 11 more at youth level with Argentinos Juniors, Chacarita and Chilean giants Colo Colo, Pekerman has the best opportunity to demonstrate that he can conquer the world at the senior level too. "Because of history, we're top candidates to win," said Pekerman. "We've had that responsibility since the moment we took over. The coaching staff and players know our goal is to win the World Cup."

Pekerman was the first choice of Argentinian Football Association to succeed Marcelo Bielsa following the latter's resignation, just as he was in 1998 when Daniel Passarella quit. On that occasion Pekerman rejected the position, but at the second time of asking he accepted.

Pekerman was working as the general co-ordinator of the national teams up to that point and, more importantly, he had already coached most of Argentina's current players. Fabricio Coloccini, Javier Saviola, Gabriel Milito, Maxi Rodriguez, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar — they all passed through Pekerman's hands some time ago in the youth teams. Almost all of them won the World Youth Championship with Pekerman at some stage too. Juan Pablo Sorin was another of Pekerman's prot�g�s and was appointed captain, succeeding experienced defender Roberto Ayala.

Pekerman's formula for success has been always the same. "We have to think in the player, give him freedom to play football," he said. "Everybody in Argentina is dreaming of the possibility of seeing Aimar, Riquelme, Messi and all the squad's high-quality players playing like they used to when they were teenagers in their native cities. That means, having fun while touching the ball."

But one of the most important tasks for Pekerman in Germany 2006 will be to try to make an unbeaten squad mixing these young excellent players with the more experienced squad members such as Ayala and Crespo. "That's what we have to work hard on from now on. We can do it," he said.

There is no spikiness to Pekerman at all. Whether working as a taxi driver in his native Gualeguay, or now as coach of one of the most powerful football nations in the world, Pekerman will be the same, with that low profile, softly-spoken manner shielding a driven and success-hungry spirit.

Matias Greco

@ PA Sport, 2006, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited.

Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.