President Lugo of Paraguay was almost correct before Wednesday night's World Cup Qualifier when he predicted a 2-0 victory for the home side. It could have been even more as they hit the frame of the goal twice before half-time together with scoring a neat goal.
As expected Maradona made changes from the team humbled by Brazil with Romero replacing Andujar in goal, Emiliano Papa, Fernando Gago and Sergio Aguero all being called into the team. Mystifyingly Sebastian Dominguez who had the debut from hell on Saturday was retained in the heart of defence whilst Nicolas Otamendi was left out.
The most striking thing about this performance was Argentina's complete lack of ideas, especially after going a goal behind on how to salvage the situation given the wealth of talent on display. Paraguay's goal was well worked and expertly finished by Haedo Valdez after receiving the ball from Salvador Cabanas who was given acres of time and space to turn and turn again without being challenged. Veron was justifiably booked for a studs-up challenge on Christian Riveros, most likely born of frustration from having such a shocking first half - stuck out on the right he inevitably drifted towards the centre and looked every one one of his 34 years. Most of Messi's play was concentrated far too deep to cause any problems at all - once again the Agrentine press are questioning why he can't recreate his Barcelona form. Paraguay were content to let Argentina have the ball safe in the knowledge that they'd do very little with it. Debutant golakeeper Sergio Romero was tellingly Argentina's pick of a poor first half.
Right - half-time: cuppa (maté), inspired changes by Maradona and a rousing teamtalk. Wrong - the team had the look of condemned men as they sheepishly took the field for the second half. The only change was a bizarre one Ezequiel Lavezzi on for his Napoli teamate Jesús Dátolo, one of the better outfield players over the previous 2 games. Switching to 4-3-3 Maradona hoped 3 vertically challenged, nippy, similar forwards could do the job that 2 couldn't. Soon after Veron gets a second yellow and is off for a foul on Torres - this time he's sold a short pass by Mascherano which puts him in trouble. Back to the drawing board and Argentina unleash their secret weapon - 35 year old Martin Palermo back to exorcise the ghosts of his last visit to Paraguay with la seleccion and add some much needed height to the attack, Aguero exits. One final odd substitution remained - 36 year Rolando Schiavi another debutant replaced Dominguez. Finally some urgency from Argentina in the last 10 minutes, Palermo heads back across goal and Schiavi nearly bundles it home - but doesn't.
Maradona has vowed to fight on, Aguero assures the public that Argentina will still qualify meanwhile Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain watches the whole campaign unravel from afar . Two games remain - Peru at home, a win (surely) and away against the old Old Enemy - Uruguay, themselves improving and looking solid. Argentina's World Cup qualification was stuttering long before Maradona was hired - appointing the world's greatest player was huge risk, his previous managerial posts had been spectacular failures - as each competitive game passes it looks like the gamble may not pay off.