x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Diego Maradona a myriad of emotions

Diego Maradona's will be an attacking side, that is clear. If it means a few goals are conceded on the counterattack by the opposition, and the possibility of a few missed offsides, so be it.

From attire to touchline antics, Diego Maradona could be called anything but dull on Thursday night.
From attire to touchline antics, Diego Maradona could be called anything but dull on Thursday night.

Diego Maradona shone. Two diamond studs in his left ear, another in his right, a heavy gold chain with a cross around his neck, a glittering complement to his man-on-the-beach short pants.

Diego Maradona exulted. When Mariano Donda scored from 30 yards, the Al Wasl manager was up off the bench, exchanging high-fives with assistants and then sinking into a group hug when Donda joined the party. Could anyone be happier?

Diego Maradona suffered. When Hamad Al Hosani could not convert a glittering chance in the box, his coach was up, fretting, clearly in pain, running his fingers through his hair, heaving a heavy sigh of disappointment.

Diego Maradona raged. He stamped his foot and threw his hands in the air for an offside and two penalties waved away by the match official. He met the referee at the touchline at the break with a wagging finger and what appeared to be a lot of second-guessing.

Diego Maradona screamed. Loud and long and hard, when Donda scored the equaliser in the 73rd minute, a primal howl at a football world which seems to want to impede his progress, or belittle his coaching acumen.

He has a very interesting sideshow at Al Wasl, and they showed signs of potential excellence; they clearly were the better side last night even as Al Jazira somehow extracted a last-minute 4-3 victory in their opening Etisalat Cup encounter.

It was a compelling UAE debut for the former Fifa Co-Player of the Century. He was in the biggest venue in the domestic league, Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, which seemed of a suitable size to house a man of his ambitions and accomplishments, even if only a handful of fans actually took the time to see the match in person.

The last time Maradona managed a game that mattered, he had Messi, Tevez, Higuain, Di Maria and Mascherano in his starting XI and Aguero, Palermo, Veron and Pastore on the bench. That was when he led Argentina in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup, the 4-0 loss to Germany.

On Thursday night, he had his three South Americans, a few Emiratis who seem to have grasped what he wants his side to do, and three or four more who looked lost or overwhelmed.

He clearly wanted to win. That was his first team out there, including all four of his foreigners (the Omani defender Mohammed Abdullah being the fourth). It may have been only the Etisalat Cup, a competition half the teams in the league didn't seem to care about last season. But it was also his coming-out party in the UAE.

The encouraging aspects of his Wasl team included the three Spanish-speaking imports, especially Donda, who scored all three goals, and Juan Manuel Olivera, the tall Uruguayan striker, who missed two gilt-edged chances by a matter of inches. The midfielder Hassan Ali, signed from Al Ahli in the summer, seemed fully integrated into the attack, as did Darwish Ahmed, one of the few holdovers from last season.

Maradona clearly wants his defence to play a high line, and when they kept the ball in front of them they turned the game into a half-pitch Wasl kick-around. But when Jazira were able to float one over the top to Ricardo Oliveira, trouble ensued.

His will be an attacking side, that is clear. If it means a few goals are conceded on the counterattack by the opposition, and the possibility of a few missed offsides, so be it. This Wasl team, like their manager, will not play it safe.

Maradona may also be the same polarising figure over here as he is back in Argentina.

On the same day that he accused his successor as coach of the national team, Sergio Batista, of accepting bribes to determine his line-up (prompting Batista to promise to take legal action against him), El Diego already was testing the limits of official patience in the UAE.

As the second half began, he appeared to be reciting a long list of grievances against the referee Ali Hamad Albadwawi, who patiently stood and smiled as the harangue was translated into Arabic.

It is hard to imagine another coach in the country getting that much time, three to five minutes, it seemed, to vent his spleen.

Call it the Maradona Effect. It has other dimensions, too, such as making the defending league champions and President's Cup holders (that would be Jazira) look like extras in the latest chapter of his life story.

It is the Year of Diego. As we have promised, it will not be dull.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae


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