Argentina charm offensive pays off
It is fortunate for Diego Maradona, and for Argentina, that the latter are rather better at making friends than the former.
Off the pitch, the country's manager has been caustic and controversial, offending the game's great and the good with scarcely concealed glee. On the pitch, his team have been nothing but charming.
Even when faced with opponents as cynical as Greece in a game in which they needed only a point to top their group, Argentina abided by the principles Maradona has imbued in their play.
Their style is engaging, their patterns elaborate. It may have taken an ugly bludgeon of a goal from Martin Demichelis to break the deadlock and a tap-in from Martin Palermo to seal victory and top spot in Group B, but Argentina never once veered from the role as the World Cup's great entertainers.
It was, for large swathes of the evening, a master class in the art of destruction. True, so dazzling are the individual talents even in an Argentine reserve team that the Greek wall was prised open on occasion, but chances were scarce.
The best of them, in the opening period, fell to Sergio Aguero. One he made himself, whipping his body round his marker, a burst of acceleration reducing two more Greek defenders to dust and forcing Alexandros Tzorvas into a fine save. The second, blocked on the line by Loukas Vyntra after the Greek goalkeeper fumbled Diego Milito's cross, was rather more opportunistic.
Where artistry fails, though, this Argentina have the opportunity of calling in the artillery. Tzorvas, unorthodox, but somehow effective, denied Juan Sebastian Veron, as languid as ever, from 35 yards, Lionel Messi, captain for the day, from 25 and Maxi Rodriguez from 15.
Nothing seemed to work. Maradona, frustrated, was reduced to impromptu lessons in how to take a throw-in. Prowling his technical area, arms folded, that he did not approve was evident.
Perhaps stung by the sight of Georgios Samaras fizzing one effort narrowly wide after the incomprehensible lapse in concentration which Demichelis likes to introduce into every game he plays, Maradona was pushed into action.
On came Angel Di Maria, another electric attacker, for Liverpool's Rodriguez. Argentina attacked with renewed vigour. Messi tested Tzorvas, again, from range, before the Panathinaikos player managed to smother Mario Bolatti's shot from Demichelis' flick on.
The warning as to the Bayern Munich player's aerial threat went unheeded. Di Maria sent in another fierce corner and Demichelis leapt highest -- no mean feat, given the size of Greece's defence -- only to see his header blocked by Diego Milito.
No matter. Demichelis pounced, his fearsome shot owing more to determination than talent. Tzorvas, finally, was beaten.
Greece, finally, crumbled. Messi struck the bar, dancing around desperate lunges on the edge of the box, his mere presence on the field testament to Maradona's devotion to victory in style.
Still, though, he cannot score. Messi has been in fine form in the opening salvos of this tournament, yet he has managed only to rattle posts and bars, to muddy goalkeeper's gloves throughout South Africa. He must wonder when his luck will change.
Still, at least he is surrounded by team-mates rather more kindly looked upon by fate.
As injury-time, and the plane home for the Greeks, loomed, Messi skipped past two, three more, his shot blocked well by Tzorvas. The rebound fell to Palermo, the veteran whose goal brought Argentina here.
He, like his manager, is not concerned with making friends. The final act could not have fallen to a better man. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
GREECE-- Tzorvas; Moras, Papadopoulos, Vyntra,Torosidis (Patsatzoglou, 55), Kyrgiakos, Papaststhopoulos, Tziolis, Karagounis (Spyropoulos, 46), Katsouranis (Ninis, 54), Samaras.
Argentina -- Romero; Demichelis, Rodriguez, Burdisso, Otamendi; Bolatti, Veron Maxi (Di Maria); Messi, Aguero (Pastore, 77), Milito (Martin Palermo, 80)