Duo clicking, so watch out for Argentina

June 23, 1994|By Jerry Trecker | Jerry Trecker,The Hartford Courant

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Argentina has figured out a way to have two conductors for its orchestra, turning that apparent contradiction into a potent attacking force that fired a warning shot across the bow of any would-be World Cup winner Tuesday afternoon.

It was not so much that the 1978 and 1986 champions routed Greece, 4-0. It was the way Fernando Redondo and Diego Maradona played together that will make other Cup contenders take notice.

Redondo, 25, a gifted central midfielder who first came to the fore in the 1992 Intercontinental Cup in Saudi Arabia, was the dominant player on a rainy day. Maradona, 33, was a rare "second among equals" to his younger playmaker. This pattern had not emerged in the past 18 months, as Maradona flirted with retirement and comeback. His indecision combined with a Redondo slump, which began with his Tenerife club in Spain and continued through the 1993 Argentina qualifying saga.

Tuesday, there was no question Redondo was back at the top of his game. Drifting imperially from one penalty box to the other, he tackled with ease, set Argentina fast breaks in motion with delightfully angled passes, touched short feeds to Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta or Claudio Caniggia, and even managed the occasional sleight-of-foot on the edge of the Greek penalty area himself.

Maradona, instead of being eclipsed by his partner, was enhanced in stature. Once the Greeks abandoned the idea of having Panagiotis Tsalouchidis drape himself all over Maradona in the guise of man-marking, a ploy that lasted 45 minutes and meant the already undermanned Greeks were virtually operating with 10 men, the great Argentine captain surged into the game with remarkable pace and agility. If some of his moves were largely made up of feints and hints, there was enough of real value to demonstrate that he has come to the United States to show this public something of his legendary power.

No, Maradona isn't the speed burner of 1986, but there were two weaving runs and plenty of excellent passes Tuesday, all crowned with a 60th-minute goal that came from a string of passes set in motion by Redondo. In that case, Maradona pounced on the finish, turning at the 18-yard line to unleash his drive to the top left corner. But the setting-up sequence was made by Redondo, who took a pass from Jose Chamot, initiated a couple of one-twos, then got out of the way to watch the finish.

For the past 18 months, this was something we did not see from Alfio Basile's team. Even as Argentina successfully defended its South American Championship in Ecuador last summer, it was a case of perseverance, not proficiency, that got the job done. Redondo was unable to assert himself in midfield, quick Caniggia was in the middle of a 15-month drug suspension, and Chamot had not been discovered by Basile.

That Argentine side spent more time getting in its own way than causing trouble for the opposition. The problems persisted through this spring, when Basile was criticized for persisting with Maradona and questioned for not changing his tactical formation. For this day, at least, he won't have to answer any critics. Caniggia is back and flashed something of his old form. Oscar Ruggeri looked happier in central defense with Chamot beside him, and Redondo had great support from Diego Simeone and Abel Balbo whenever he ventured forth.

This was not the same Argentine style as 1986, but it was virtually the same concept. Built around a three-man backfield and five players operating in midfield, the idea always has been to spring the front-runners with passes launched from a moving shield. Nobody can time those better than Maradona, but Redondo and Simeone have learned from observation. Batistuta needed only a minute to collect one such pass to score the first goal; Simeone drew a penalty from another near the end of the match, before Batistuta scored his third goal on a penalty kick.

Whether this Argentina team can emulate the 1986 champions may depend on what happens here Saturday against Nigeria. Another exhibition of dominance from Redondo and Maradona would convince most observers that this team is real.

We know Nigeria, the African champion, figures to be stronger than the willing but outmanned Greeks. What we have yet to find out is how good this Argentina team can be.

Having proved that you can have two midfield generals in the same lineup is an excellent way to start.

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