x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The French catch Diego fever in Marseille

Diego Maradona thanked the French public for giving him a rapturous welcome as Argentina beat France 2-0 in Marseille.

Argentina's Lionel Messi, front, stumbles past Lassana Diarra at the Stade Velodrome.
Argentina's Lionel Messi, front, stumbles past Lassana Diarra at the Stade Velodrome.

MARSEILLE // Diego Maradona thanked the French public for giving him a rapturous welcome as Argentina beat France 2-0 at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Wednesday night. The 48-year-old Argentina manager was treated like a hero before, during and after the game by home supporters - while his French counterpart Raymond Domenech suffered boos and whistles.

Maradona has now won two matches out of two since taking the job, putting Argentina in great shape for their crucial World Cup qualifiers against Venezuela (home) on March 28 and Bolivia (away) on March 31. "The first two matches have gone really well. I've got a great squad," said Maradona. "There's stiff competition for places, but that will only improve the team. The players carried out exactly what we worked on in training.

"I told the players that if we were able to show the same form we did in the 30 opening minutes of the Scotland match [Maradona's first match in charge, a 1-0 friendly victory in November] we could beat anyone. That is what happened. "We did what we knew we had to do and in some moments we made France look ridiculous." The former Napoli midfielder also hit back at critics who said he wasn't up to the job. "I don't pay too much attention to those who say I'm not capable of being Argentina manager. I'd like to thank the French fans here for their remarkable welcome."

Hundreds waited outside the stadium to see Maradona's arrival, and his first steps on to the pitch during the pre-match warm-up were greeted with roars of approval around the ground. In contrast, Domenech's name prompted boos and whistles, and many in the 60,000 sell-out crowd chanted "Domenech, resign!" during the final five minutes of the game. France started brightly, but Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery spurned early chances and Argentina took the lead when the Newcastle United winger Jonas Gutierrez's shot slipped under the goalkeeper Steve Mandanda on 41 minutes.

Argentina played the better football after the break, with the forward combination of Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero particularly impressive. Javier Mascherano gave an assured performance in midfield as well, but it was Messi who capped a fine individual display with a virtuoso goal on 83 minutes to round off the 2-0 win. After France left the field to boos, captain Thierry Henry said it was just part of the game. "That's how French supporters are. You don't just get it in Marseille, it's the same at Barcelona. When you don't play well, you get whistled. It's become the norm, you have to live with it. People have a right to express their dissatisfaction."

France face a real test of character when they play successive World Cup qualifiers against Lithuania on March 28 (away) and April 1 (home). Domenech's side desperately need consecutive victories: they trail joint European Group 7 leaders Lithuania and Serbia by five points, having played only one game fewer. jeastham@thenational.ae