Diego Armando Maradona’s last World Cup game as a player, was in 1994. Against Nigeria. So, it was fitting that his first World Cup game as a manager was against the same opponents. Maradona’s playing career was controversial, but at his peak he was capable of raising above average teams to great heights, both at club level with Napoli (both their Serie A titles came with Diego at the heart) and of course at national level (Burruchaga apart, most of Argentina’s 1986 side was ordinary, or past their best). Maradona’s lows are just as legendary, the nadir of which was testing positive for ephedrine at the 1994 World Cup, which eneded his international career. His coaching career has been just as controversial. His two spells at clubs in the mid 1990s were short and not so sweet, winning just one out of twelve games at Mandiyú de Corrientes, and faring only slightly better at Racing Club de Avellaneda, where two out of eleven games were won. Returning to coaching for Argentina thirteen years after his unsuccessful club career was a shock to some, and hasn’t been without it’s low points – the 6-1 defeat in La Paz fourteen months ago was the worst ever defeat in a World Cup qualifier. Some of the choices Maradona has made have been eccentric too. Martin Palermo’s presence in the squad has been the most controversial choice of all, with a recall to the side (after an absence of 10 years), and seven appearances, that have produced five goals. But should a nation that can call on Lionel Messi, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and even Sergio Agueiro need to call upon a player whose main claim to fame is missing a hattrick of penalties? The absence of any genuine fullbacks (especially Javier Zanetti, who is probably the best defensive player in the world right now), as well as Esteban Cambiasso and Juan Roman Riqualme are seen as baffling across the football world, and Argentina will need to progress at least as far as they did in Germany (when they reached the quarter finals), to justify those omissions.
The last time Argentina and Nigeria faced each other in the World Cup in 1994, Nigeria were an exciting attacking force, with the likes of Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Finidi George and Viktor Ikpeba, marshalled at the back by Stephen Keshi (probably the greatest African defender to date), coached by Dutchman Clemens Westerhof. These days, Nigeria are a much more defensive unit, with Swedish coach Lars Lagerbeck taking a more organised approach that relies on just one striker.
Maradona lays Argentina out in an attacking formation, with Jonas Gutierrez at right back (instead of Javier Zanetti, inexplicably left out of the 23), and three up front, clearly they have one tactic – give it to Lionel Messi, attack and support him which happens from the kickoff. With such an odd choice in a flat back four, Nigeria may be well served to attack at all opportunities. As if to prove this Chinnedu Obasi skins Gutierrez in the first couple of minutes, but puts his shot so wide it may have gone for a throw. Argentina swarm forward again, and Messi supplies Gonzalo Higuain, who should have put them one up, but misses from three yards out. Chidi Odiah then gives the ball away to Messi, who tries his first shot, which Vincent Enyema tips over the bar. From the resulting corner Gabriel Heinze, makes a late run, and his marker watches him head the opening goal. 1-0.
Both teams keep it pedestrian after that for a while, until Juan Sebastian Veron (the Juan Sebastian Veron who played in England, just in case you, like BBC pundit Mick McCarthy didn’t realise he was still playing until an hour before kickoff) produces a 50 yard cross-field ball into the area, which Messi almost times to perfection, only for Enyema to beat him to the ball. Messi followed it up two minutes later by hitting a curling shot, which Enyema palms round the post. Messi is having the run of the pitch, and Argentina are in full control. Another crossfield ball lands at the toe of Higuain, and Enyema again saves. Enyema has kept the score down single-handedly, but efforts such as Walter Samuel’s header, which bounces down, then harmlessly over, have helped him.
It’s almost all Argentina, but when Nigeria did get the ball, they looked threatening. A Dickson Etuhu flick past Gutierrez gave Obasi another chance inside the area, but again he put it wide. Messi then comes to life. A long 1-2 leaves Messi in acres of space and another curling shot is put around the post by Enyema, who is Man of the Match by a distance. Argentina have controlled the play without exerting themselves too much, and Nigeria are seemingly content to let them have the ball, seeing Gutierrez at right back as an opening everytime they have the ball – especially after he picks up a booking for the foul on Obasi.
The second half picks up where the first half left off. Messi tries to flick on a low Veron cross, but it goes wide. A Messi run and backheel puts Tevez into a dangerous position for the first time in the match, but he doesn’t retain possession. Tevez follows it up by making a more dangerous run, only to provide Higuain with his another chance to waste possession, and Samuel has another chance from a Veron corner to add a second, but again puts it over the bar. Lagerbeck hrings on Obafemi Martins for the ineffective Victor Obinna, and the Super Eagles go 4-4-2, which should give Messi a permanent marker. Nigeria’s first attack ends in a cross that finds a penalty box without an attacker, but it’s a rare foray forward. Di Maria keeps the ball in play and starts a counter attack that sees a great challenge from Joseph Yobo produce another Argentine corner.
Lagerbeck prepares to bring Peter Odemwingie on, as Messi goes on his first real run of the tournament, a block by Tevez helping create the last surge into the box, but the shot is weak. Odemwingie replaces Obasi, and Nigeria start looking threatening.Yakubu cons Dimichelis into giving a freekick, and Martins wins a corner, but the first time the delivery is wasted, and the second time, Keita gives the ball away, allowing Tevez to break, and Argentina found themselves 4 on 2, with Tevez supplying Messi, whose shot is again saved by Enyema, who produces yet another save a minute later from Higuain. Nigeria then break, but the final ball doesn’t happen as Odemwingie runs it out of play. Odemwingie berates Yakubu presumably for making a run into the box – something which has been lacking from Nigeria’s attacks up to that point. Nigeria follow this up with a great ball to Odemwingie on the left wing, who beats Gutierrez, and supplies the left back Taye Taiwo with Nigeria best chance, which he toe pokes wide. Martins has Argentina’s best chance with a swerving dipping shot from range that Sergio Romero can only parry, but the rebound is marshalled away and the resulting cross is ballooned wide.
Higuain then makes way for Diego Milito, as Maradona takes the hint that Nigeria could equalise, but Milito isn’t involved in the next chace, as Messi plays a 1-2 with Di Maria on the edge of the area, only for Enyema to pull off yet another save. Nigeria then turn up the pressure, Yakubu crosses for Kalu Uche to blaze over the bar, when passing to Martins looked the better optionand the game starts going end to end, almost in a competition to see who can provide the worst final ball, Milito’s pullback that bypasses every striped shirt to land inbetween three Nigerians looking to be the “winner”. Argentina appeal for a penalty after Keita drags Tevez down after a run into the box, but the referee – German Wolfgang Stark – does not react. Keita makes an even more important interception minutes later, knocking the ball away for a corner, with Messi ready to shoot.
So, Maradona’s first game goes off relatively easily. Enyema kept the score down, and was rightly awarded the Official Man of the Match, but Argentina’s defence were not tested anywhere near as much as they will be against stronger sides, Messi looked impressive, but had no end product, and the final ball from the whole team was often poor. And, if Maradona keeps faith with Gutierrez on Thursday against South Korea, and Park Ji-Sung plays even half as well as he did against Greece, then the score will be very different, because if he can rip apart a full back in Otto Rehhagel’s defensive system, then a winger in Maradona’s attacking system will be a lot more prone.