In pursuit of another glory

Published : Jun 10, 2010 00:00 IST

Diego Maradona's squad brims with talent, to the extent that three out of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Diego Milito and Gonzalo Higuain are likely to start from the bench, giving Argentina a wealth of fresh match-winners to bring on in the second half of tight games, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Among the decorated names in charge of the 32 teams at the 2010 World Cup, conspicuous amidst the Lippis, Capellos and Del Bosques, are two men looking to complete the double of winning the tournament as player and coach — Dunga and Diego Maradona, both in their first major coaching assignments. Both have made controversial squad selections. Neither, it would seem, is likely to keep his job were his side to fall short of lifting the World Cup.

They had markedly different playing styles. Dunga was the combative presence in midfield who defined Brazil's 1994 win under Carlos Alberto Parreira, a victory of pragmatism over the Selecao's traditional virtues of expressive, free-spirited football. Maradona was the uncontainable attacking force, a whirlwind dribbler and inventive passer who inspired Argentina to a remarkable triumph at the 1986 World Cup.

The two coaches also oversaw contrasting routes to qualification. Brazil marched unremittingly, if sometimes dourly, through its campaign to finish top of the South American table, losing only twice. In between, Dunga engineered a successful run at the Confederations Cup, showing the world a settled system with players who knew exactly what their roles were.

In contrast, chaos has characterised Maradona's reign so far. Through the course of Argentina's qualifying matches and friendlies since he took over from Alfio Basile, Maradona used over 80 players, roping in two players plying their trade in the second tier of English football, a man who hadn't worn the blue and white stripes for a decade, and sundry other names from the Argentine leagues while showing a lack of faith in certain big names sparkling in the highest rungs of Europe.

Qualification itself was ensured late in the day, in dramatic circumstances, thanks to scruffy winners from Martin Palermo (the decade-long absentee from the national team) and Mario Bolatti in Argentina's last two games. The coach added to the final day drama with a bizarre, foul-mouthed rant at the media in the post-match press conference, earning himself a two-month ban from FIFA. Now, Maradona has promised to scar the citizens of Buenos Aires for life by running naked through the streets of their city were Argentina to win the World Cup.

From all this, it's easy to paint Dunga as an uncompromising, unsentimental man with a road map drawn clearly in his head and Maradona as something of a maverick and coaching dilettante, relying exclusively on the force of his personality and divine inspiration for success.

This is only reinforced by the names they have left out of their 23-member squads. Brazil's notable absentees are AC Milan stars Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato and two home-based talents Neymar da Silva and Ganso. None of the exclusions pleased the Brazilian public, who saw this as the marginalisation of players with a more deliberate, old-fashioned aesthetic. Which is precisely what Dunga was doing, leaving out players who wouldn't fit his physically demanding counterattacking system.

Maradona has left out Champions League winners Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, as well as proven European performers such as Ever Banega, Fernando Gago, Lucho Gonzalez and Gabriel Milito, all of whom would add experience and solidity, off the bench at the very least. Instead, he has taken with him the 35-year-old Palermo, surely surplus to requirements considering his plentiful attacking options, and the Fiorentina midfielder Bolatti, unproven at the highest level, ostensibly as reward for the late goals they stabbed in to help Argentina qualify.

Maradona's squad includes barely any fullbacks. “I'm going to defend with four centre-backs,” he announced. His wingers would take sole responsibility to attack from the flanks, he added, ignoring the role attacking full-backs played in the successes of France (Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu), Brazil (Cafu and Roberto Carlos) and Italy (Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso) in the last three World Cups.

However, delving deeper into Maradona's selection and the starting eleven he has consistently fielded in recent games, one can discern a strategy that draws from the philosophy of Carlos Bilardo, Maradona's coach at the 1986 World Cup and his general manager now.

His lopsided 4-4-1-1 (with a genuine winger in Angel Di Maria on the left and the high-work rate Jonas Gutierrez on the right) may not outwardly resemble Bilardo's 3-5-2, but is designed for a similar purpose — to free the star player (Maradona himself in '86, Messi in 2010) and allow him free reign on the pitch. Stating that Messi is an even better player than he was, Maradona said he wanted all of his team's play to go through the Barcelona star.

With Nicolas Otamendi and Gabriel Heinze, the widest of his ‘four centre backs', instructed not to cross the halfway line, and holding midfielder Javier Mascherano staying behind the ball at all times, Maradona's team will be the least susceptible among the big teams at the World Cup to being caught undermanned at the back on the counterattack.

Going forward, Maradona's squad brims with talent, to the extent that three out of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Diego Milito and Gonzalo Higuain are likely to start from the bench, giving Argentina a wealth of fresh match-winners to bring on in the second half of tight games.

If the Argentine squad has one weakness, it is that there is little experienced back-up for central midfielders Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron. This could prove debilitating were either of them to get injured, or were the latter, now 35, to get fatigued towards the latter half of the tournament. Maradona would hope that Bolatti and the elegant Javier Pastore can cover adequately. Failing that, his decision to leave behind Cambiasso, Lucho and Banega will come back to haunt him.

But all the squads at the World Cup have their weaknesses. England has injury worries, France a misfiring strike force, Germany an untested midfield, Italy and Netherlands suspect defences. Even Spain isn't infallible, and can be stymied by teams that defend deep in numbers, as USA showed at the Confederations Cup.

Dunga's Brazil has a lack of depth similar to Argentina's. Were Kaka or Robinho to pick up an injury, the squad has nobody of a similar level of creativity to step up in their places. Ronaldinho or Ganso, though not as fleet of foot as Kaka, would have been useful replacements. Even without bothersome injuries, Brazil could have problems if an inspired opponent were to demonstrate flaws in Dunga's Plan A.

And so, can Dunga or Maradona emulate Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer? Considering the talent at their disposal, and studying the manner in which they have set up their sides (while ignoring the temptation to extrapolate too much from their personalities), there is no reason they cannot. But between them and the realising of their dreams lies a phalanx of proven master tacticians.

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