LIVERPOOL // Javier Mascherano will have to pinch himself the first time he is on a training pitch with Diego Maradona, the new coach of Argentina. The little genius who inspired his country to World Cup glory in 1986 is revered by the nation, and his first act on being confirmed as Alfio Basile's replacement was to ask Mascherano to be his new captain, saying he embodied what it meant to wear the Argentine shirt - to "sweat for it, sacrifice for it, being a professional, being close to the teammate'.
Mascherano will have talks about the role, but first he will have to overcome the aura that surrounds his new manager. "What will it mean having him in front of us as the coach? For us, he is the most important player we ever had for Argentina and the best player football had," he said. "It will be a shock for the players to have him as coach, but it will be fantastic. "He always likes to play good football and we need to show that. I also think we need to help him to put us on top of the world.
"I haven't talked with him yet about the captaincy. The only thing that I have said is, before Maradona arrived, we had a captain who is Javier Zanetti. Mascherano embodies the ideal of a young, hungry and talented Argentina side. While Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero provide the attacking brilliance, Mascherano is the heartbeat in midfield, a player who gives everything on the pitch. He showed that again in Liverpool's 1-1 Champions League Group D draw against Atletico Madrid at Anfield, a result which keeps both sides on course for the knockout phase.
Steven Gerrard came to his side's rescue, earning and scoring a controversial injury-time penalty after an aerial collision with Mariano Pernia. Liverpool were fortunate, lacking a cutting edge in the absence of Fernando Torres with Daniel Agger guilty of spurning their best chances with headers. The draw came after their first defeat of the season against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, but Mascherano said there is no reason to fear a slip in results.
"If we don't lose that is very important for us," he added. "We know that if win the next game against Marseille we will be through and can still finish top of the group. "If we carry on in this way we will fight for the titles. Two weeks ago people were talking about us as contenders because we beat Chelsea. Football can change quickly, but we don't need to worry." Atletico put up a valiant effort and showed a great threat on the break, resulting in a fine opening goal for Maxi Rodriguez.
Their players were left shell-shocked by the 94th minute spot-kick decision. "It was a very ugly decision by the linesman, but we all make mistakes, us players too, and I think the linesman made one here," said Pernia. "In nobody's eyes was that a penalty. It was a non-existent foul, Gerrard threw himself on top of me. The linesman said 'sorry, sorry' after the penalty was given. He had time to correct it and go back on it, but he didn't."