For the majority of the 90 minutes at the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito in Rosario, Argentina's manager Diego Maradona stood on the touchline with a worried, slightly baffled look on his face.
Maradona found wanting
For the majority of the 90 minutes at the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito in Rosario, Argentina's manager Diego Maradona stood on the touchline with a worried, slightly baffled look on his face, as his side went down 3-1 to arch rivals Brazil for the first time since 1995 on home soil. Was the Argentine legend scheming, pondering how to mastermind his team's way back into the match? Or was is demeanour a sign that the inexperienced coach had simply run out of ideas and was hoping for a miracle?
To the casual observer, not caught up in the Maradona mania that constantly grips Argentina, the latter would seem the more plausible reason. For Maradona's tactics belied a lack of preparation for Brazil's physical style. His starting XI featured barely a single player over six feet tall and his defence was twice exposed at set pieces as Dunga's side shot into a 2-0 lead. At one point the creative talents of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Juan Sebastian Veron were all on the pitch, yet they played too centrally, lacked width and had no answer to Brazil's defence, which at times consisted of nine players.
Despite a brief moment of hope, when Napoli midfielder Jesus Datolo's 65th-minute screamer put Argentina back in the match, it was Brazil's victory from the start and Luis Fabiano's second, goal on 67 minutes, flattened the brief comeback to book his side's place at the World Cup. Maradona looked close to tears at the final whistle - as the home fans chanted Dunga's name - with his side now dangerously close to missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970.
"It's going to be tough," said Maradona, whose team are just two points ahead of Ecuador and Columbia in fifth and sixth place in the table with three games to play. Only the top four qualify for South Africa automatically, while the team in fifth play off against a North and Central American team, possibly Mexico. "It will be more difficult because of today. Well, these things happen in football," he added. "This won't break me."
Dunga was naturally delighted to qualify - and with the fine victory over their arch rivals. "We're happy," he said. "We beat a great team with great champions. Messi might be the best player in the world. We beat Argentina, which had not lost a match at home in qualifying." Argentina had not lost a home qualifying match in 16 years and started the match confidently with Veron and Messi dictating possession and pinning Brazil back in front of 40,000 in Rosario.
Brazil soon struck back with devastating effect, scoring two goals in barely seven minutes to leave the disorganised Argentine defence in shreds. Maradona had picked the Velez Sarsfield centre-back pair Sebastian Dominguez and Nicolas Otamendi, with one cap between them before the game, at the heart of the defence. And they somehow left the giant Luisao free in the box to head home an Elano free-kick. Fabiano soon made it two, knocking home a rebound from a free-kick.
Datolo gave the Argentine supporters hope, but the comeback attempt was quickly snuffed out. Kaka was the creator with a measured pass to Fabiano who beautifully lobbed keeper Mariano Andujar for his 10th goal in 10 qualifying games. Argentina travel to third-placed Paraguay on Wednesday, managed by Argentine Gerardo Martino. On this display, the under-fire Maradona could do well to ask his counterpart for some tactical advice.
* With agencies