Argentina’s persistence over a dogged and vintage Greek side finally paid off after they ensured their 100% record in the competition remains intact with a two-nil victory at the Peter Mokaba Stadium.
Greece are notorious for their lack of adventure going forward as they sought nothing more than a draw with the hope of cashing in on goal via a counter attack. Argentina dominated the game in terms of possession but the Greeks stifled them with their defensive play.
Lionel Messi who has been absolutely mesmerizing thus far in South Africa with his trademark sparkle and creativity didn’t enjoy one of his better nights which was due to him being marked out of the game for pretty much the entire ninety minutes of play.
Coach Diego Maradona made seven changes to his side which had already qualified barring a miracle against them in terms of goal difference thanks to victory in their previous fixture but did not have top spot guaranteed. Captain Javier Mascherano was rested with other key figures Carlos Tevez, Walter Samuel and the tournament’s top goal scorer Gonzalo Higuain also sitting out the game. The 49 year old however opted to keep Lionel Messi in the team as he continues to excite the people of South Africa with his aura and artistic flair with the Jabulani ball. Maradona explained his decision to unleash the Barcelona star as a show of respect to the people of Africa:
“We want to be world champions with Messi. We had the opportunity to leave him out but we wanted to play him. A lot of people come to see him play. To leave him out would be a sin.”
Although Otto Rehhagel’s tactical approach with his teams are not all too popular they did do a job on Argentina by obstructing their usual technical swagger. Despite their success in restricting the Argentines, they offered little with their attacking emphasis as Giorgos Samaras led the line up top on his own. Too his credit the Celtic man can be pleased with his work for the team but missed a golden opportunity to put them in front after a mistake from Demiichelis in the second half opened up the space for the front man to run into but he fluffed his lines at the critical moment and blasted the ball wide off Romero’s goal.
Juan Sebastian Veron returned to the side after missing out on the 4-1 victory over South Korea with a calf problem. Despite his age the veteran orchestrated proceedings in the middle of the park again with his wide range of passing. He has been a marvel since his return to grace and looks as good at the age of 35 as he did ten years ago. He really has been rejuvenated since his move to his homeland with Estudiantes. He is a key member of the squad with his experience proving to be invaluable. His partnership with Mascherano in the centre of midfield is key for Maradona’s dream to prosper on July the 11th as their leadership qualities can really make a difference along with their fearless attitude.
Greece had a real opportunity to advance to the knockout rounds as the score line in the other game between Nigeria and South Korea was working in their favour with both sides ancelling each other out twice before concluding with the eventual 2-2 draw. The Pirate Ship should have given it a real go and take the bull by the horns and surprise Argentina but Rehhagel’s philosophy of defensive football has been cemented into the Greek way of football and little do they know how to play in any other fashion. They showed spirit with their team work but their approach going forward was very tame.
Argentina created plenty of half chance but nothing clear cut. The game was beginning to drift by in the second half and looked to be heading for a goalless draw before Martin Demichelis smashed La Albiceleste infront after pouncing on a lucky break following a corner from Lionel Messi in the 77th minute. The Bayern Munich man connected to the set piece by heading it inadvertently into Diego Miltio before blasting in the rebound past Greece’s Alexandros Tzorvas. It was well deserved for Maradona’s men who himself lightened up the sideline with exuberant celebrations as he embraced his colleagues with hugs.
Lionel Messi nearly scored a trademark solo effort after architecting the chance himself with his intricate footwork and his drop of the shoulder which stunned Vangelis Moras but could only find the frame of the goal instead of the net.
Martin Palermo who is more renown by people outside of Argentina as the man who fluffed three penalty kicks against Colombia in the Copa America eleven years, which still stands as a Guinness World Record today, came on as a late substitute for Diego Milito and killed the game off after pouncing on a rebound to tuck the ball home. Messi was once again involved as it was his stinging shot which was well saved by Tzorvas but the unlucky keeper couldn’t deny veteran Palermo on the follow up as he preceded his coach by becoming the oldest Argentine to score at a FIFA World Cup at the tender age of 36.
The victory was more than Argentina deserved. Maradona showed his joy at the final whistle celebrating with his players but showed his gracious nature too as he shook the hands of the defeated Greeks. This now sets up a tantalising last sixteen tie with Mexico who ironically they met in the same stage four years ago where a wonder strike from Maxi Rodriguez capped off a terrific game. More of the same this time around would be just the ticket.