Maradona at ease as Argentina look set for last 16
By Jim Slater (AFP)
PRETORIA, South Africa — Diego Maradona was so relaxed and jovial with friends Friday that one might have mistaken the retired legend for someone other than the much-maligned Argentina World Cup coach.
“Everything is OK,” Maradona said after a workout at the University of Pretoria, praising players several times and even yelling a profanity in surprised pleasure rather than anger.
Maradona, Argentina’s all-time World Cup scoring leader who turns 50 in October, can afford to adopt a mellow attitude after the Albiceleste’s 4-1 victory over South Korea on Thursday all but assured his team a last-16 berth.
Barcelona playmaker Lionel Messi, the maestro named 2009 World Player of the Year, set up a hat-trick for Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain to spark the Argentina triumph.
Maradona was hugging his players so much after the South Korea victory that he joked about it after the match, but Argentina captain Javier Mascherano said Maradona was just showing a joyful side not always displayed outside the team.
“I think always that is the way Maradona normally behaves,” said Mascherano.
“He also embraces us away from the TV cameras and this is important. Of course the hugs are very positive because they bring victories.”
After Argentina struggled to escape South American qualifying, many were ready to dump the blame on the shoulders of Maradona, who led Argentina to their most recent of two World Cup triumphs in 1986.
But don’t cry for him, Argentina. Supporters adore where the hefty hugger has guided them now.
Greece would need a three-goal rout of Argentina in their final Group B match Tuesday and South Korea would need a similar romp over Nigeria in order to deny Maradona’s squad a place in the knockout rounds.
Argentina’s pressing of the attack with midfield support helps Messi and Higuain, Mascherano said, but also benefits the backline by keeping rivals from pushing their men forward in order to better defend the challenge.
“Forget about what many people said or believe,” said the 26-year-old midfielder who looks set to swap Liverpool for Inter Milan. “Argentina is putting many people in the attack and from the middle of the field forward is very dangerous.
“If we attack with many players, really it’s good for us because if you put four or five players from the middle of the field forward, the other team has to put more people and is attacking with less players.”
There could be some changes in Argentina’s midfield and defence against the Greeks at Polokwane.
Veteran midfielder Juan Veron might return from a hamstring injury in place of Liverpool’s Maxi Rodriguez. Veron trained with the reserves on Friday as players sure to start rested but said he felt “very good”.
Mascherano has a yellow card and might be kept out against Greece to avoid another booking and possible suspension early in the knockout rounds.
“The coach is going to decide the changes in the squad,” Mascherano said.
“If I take care of myself now and I receive a yellow card in the match before the quarter-final, I’m going to miss the quarter-final, so it’s all the same.”
Striker Carlos Tevez and defender Walter Samuel, who is fighting off a sore left leg, might also find themselves on the sidelines.
“I’m better. Fortunately it’s not a break and I could play the next game,” Samuel said. “We are following day by day with the doctor.”