x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Diego still in doubt

After three games they had almost forgotten the doubts, but the 6-1 defeat in Bolivia highlighted Argentina's problems, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Maradona tires to console Emiliano Papa after their 6-1 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz on April 1.
Maradona tires to console Emiliano Papa after their 6-1 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz on April 1.

After three games they had almost forgotten the doubts. Away victories in friendlies against Scotland and France, and a 4-0 stroll against Venezuela in a World Cup qualifier at home had persuaded a lot of the sceptics that Diego Maradona could be a credible manager of Argentina. And then they lost 6-1 in Bolivia. Other teams have struggled at altitude, and Argentina have only won three competitive fixtures in La Paz, so Maradona is probably right when he says there is no need to panic. But still, the margin and the manner of the defeat raises serious concerns ahead of tomorrow night's qualifier at home to Colombia.

At first glance, Argentina's squad looks a glittering one. Which side in the world would not welcome the likes of Leo Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and Gago? Those five even slot comfortably into the 4-2-3-1 formation that dominates modern tactical thinking. And then you see the problem: there is no point striker to hold the ball up for the creative midfielders; there is a dearth of defenders to make up the back four; and the stream of goalkeepers seems to have run dry.

Had it not been for Juan Roman Riquelme's decision to quit international football - the exact details of his spat remain unclear but, ostensibly, it resulted from his non-selection for the friendly in Marseille - perhaps Tevez could have been used as a centre-forward with Riquelme behind, but as it is, with Gonzalo Higuain still out of favour for missing a youth tournament three years ago, Maradona is left wishing Boca Junior's Martin Palermo, still prolific at 35, were a few years younger.

But it was the defence that was really exposed in La Paz. Marad-ona had used a back three against Venezuela, a successful ploy to flood negative opponents, but he switched to a more orthodox back four against Bolivia, with neither Gabriel Heinze nor Martin Demichelis convincing in the centre. Both, though, seem likely to retain their places this weekend with Getafe's Daniel Diaz coming in as Maradona reverts to a 3-4-3.

With Juan Pablo Carrizo enduring a shaky season at Lazio, it seems he will be replaced in goal by Mariano Andujar of Estudiantes. He is likely to be joined in the starting line-up by his club-mate, Juan Sebastian Veron, who. at 34, has discovered a new lease of life. "Finding our best form is difficult because there is little time to work," the former Manchester United midfielder said. "If we win on Saturday, we'll push Colombia down a little bit as they are one of the teams who are fighting for qualification below us. The people will only be happy when we qualify for the World Cup." And that really is the point: there is tension, because even qualification, almost unthinkably, is not assured.

The positive is that ordinary defenders can be moulded into a solid defensive unit, whereas talents such as Messi and Aguero are born, not made. In 1986, Maradona's genius inspired an average but well-constructed team to the World Cup; the question is whether as a manager he can provide a similar platform for his stars. jwilson@thenational.ae