Unlikely hero sends Argentina to South Africa
Uruguay 0 – 1 Argentina
Argentina booked their place at next summer’s World Cup by following-up their last-gasp defeat of Peru with another crucial, yet marginal, victory over 10-man Uruguay in the Estadio Centenario last night.
A late winner scored by second-half substitute Mario Bolatti proved enough to claim all three points for Maradona’s side and force Uruguay into a play-off against Costa Rica in a largely scrappy affair – boasting a ratio of more than two fouls for each minute of play – that was devoid of any real quality.
The Ã¢â‚¬Ëœwinner takes all’ match between two neighbouring rivals situated either side of the River Plate was expected to showcase a wealth of attacking talent with both teams going for the jugular, but failed to live up to its billing.
Another puzzling Maradona selection omitted Pablo Aimar – a player brought back into the fold by the former great following an absence of over two years – whose presence and link-up play with Lionel Messi was the highlight of an otherwise abject performance against Peru.
Juan Veron was drafted back into central midfield, Newcastle United winger Jonas Gutierrez was the preferred option on the right flank, and Maradona’s own Son-in-Law found himself dropped from the bench into obscurity.
Argentina began nervously whilst their every touch was met by deafening whistles from the hounding crowd and they could have found themselves behind as early as the third minute.
Good work by in-form Ajax hitman Luis Suarez saw the 22-year-old beat two defenders before pulling the ball back into the six-yard box, where Angel Di Maria was on hand for Argentina to get a last-ditch block on the forthcoming shot at goal.
Just a minute later, Argentina were on the back-foot again after seeing their corner-kick cleared and held up well by Diego Forlan before being carved open by the Uruguay hotshot with a through pass into the path of the arriving Jorge Rodriguez.
The ball ran just too far and favoured the advancing Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero whose attempted clearance crashed against Rodriguez and, to the relief of the young stopper, rebounded just wide of goal.
Another chance fell to the home side on 10 minutes as centre-half Andres Scotti met Rodriguez’s in-swinging free-kick with a header just wide of goal that had Romero scrambling towards his right-hand post.
A period of play littered with fouls had seen the referee brandish three yellow cards within 16 minutes and it took that long before Maradona’s side managed to provide the talismanic Messi with the ball.
The dominative forward – widely-tipped to receive this year’s World Player of the Year award – ran skilfully at goal and slid a pass through to his strike partner Higuain, who was snuffed out by the defiant Uruguay backline.
Argentina began to find their way back into the game and a free-kick whipped-in by the ageing Veron was unfortunate not to find the head of Gabriel Heinze as the left-back leapt at the far post.
Their first effort on target was hit straight into the arms of Uruguay number one Nestor Muslera by Di Maria and summed up their quality of play in the final third.
Veron was proving Argentina’s most instrumental player and the Estudiantes playmaker spread the ball well in a congested midfield to open up the pitch.
Forlan was another guilty of under-performing and his next involvement of note came moments before the break as he drove purposefully at goal before unleashing a low strike wide of the post from 20 yards.
The prolific Atletico Madrid striker was to provide the next effort on goal in the second-half as he attempted to beat an off-balance Romero with a curling effort inside the goalkeeper’s left-hand post that whistled just wide.
A huge buzz around the ground on 52 minutes signalled Chile’s taking of the lead in their game against Uruguay and Argentina’s qualification rivals Ecuador and allowed both sides to breathe easier in what was proving a fiercely-contested battle.
The game opened up after the hour mark as both sides searched for a goal that would send them automatically into the World Cup draw on December 4.
A free-kick whipped-in by Forlan on 73 minutes almost sent the home side into the lead as defender Diego Lugano broke free of the melee inside the 18-yard box to awkwardly flick the ball just past the far post.
Maradona again adopted a more defensive approach for the final quarter of the game by replacing Di Maria with left-back Luciano Monzon, with Higuain soon to be hauled off for midfielder Bolatti on 80 minutes.
Uruguay’s marauding full-back Jose Caceres collided with Nicolas Otamendi on 77 minutes after showing too much of the ball to the defender and was lucky not to see red when he followed through on the Velez Sarsfield man – receiving a yellow card.
But it wasn’t long before Caceres was sent for an early bath with the Juventus player receiving a second yellow for cynically hauling down Gutierrez after the Newcastle winger rode the initial challenge and looked to drive towards the by-line.
The free-kick set up Argentina’s 84th minute winner.
Uruguay couldn’t clear their lines after the ball was played in and failed to deal with Veron’s drilled effort back at goal, allowing substitute Bolatti to follow in Martin Palermo’s footsteps and become another unlikely hero just four minutes after coming on by tucking the ball neatly past Muslera into the bottom corner.
The goal confirmed the Albicelestes’ World Cup place and sparked jubilant scenes at the final whistle as Maradona and Carlos Bilardo – who have enjoyed a relationship as smooth as Argentina’s passage to the finals – embraced emotionally surrounded by a mob of photographers and cameramen.
Maradona has plenty of convincing to do if he is to emulate the exuberant success of his playing career as national coach, but at least now he has the perfect platform of South Africa next summer to do so.
Uruguay: Muslera, Lugano, Scotti, Caceres, Gargano (C Rodriguez, 71), V Pereira, A Pereira, J Rodriguez (Cavani, 59), Perez, Forlan, Suarez (Abreu, 77)
Argentina: Romero, Otamendi, Schiavi, Demichelis, Heinze, Macherano, Veron, Gutierrez, Di Maria (Monzon, 75), Messi (Tevez, 86), Higuain (Bolatti, 80)
Man of the Match: Juan Veron – Clever distribution in a congested midfield kept Argentina ticking.