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Hand of God hits Argentina's hopes

On Tuesday night, Lisandro scored twice for Lyon as they beat Bordeaux 3-1. The following night, Diego Milito hit the only goal in Inter Milan's 1-0 victory over CSKA Moscow. On the same evening, Lionel Messi ran the show for Barcelona in their 2-2 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates. Carlos Tevez scored a hat-trick for Manchester City in their 3-0 Premier League win over Wigan Athletic on Monday night. And on Sunday, Gonzalo Higuain scored for Real Madrid as they defeated Atletico 3-2 in the Madrid derby.

The common thread which binds this famous five is that they are all Argentinian. And the quintet's prominence over the past week is no fluke because they've been among the best players in Europe all season. Messi's 34 goals in 41 games have been well documented but Higuain's 25 from 30 games is not much less impressive. Ditto Tevez's 25 goals in 34 games for City and Milito's 22 goals for Inter in Serie A. Lisandro has already paid back some of the €24 million Lyon forked out to Porto with 21 goals this term.

There's also Sergio Aguero who's hit 18 goals for Atletico Madrid in the Primera Liga this season and taken the precaution of getting engaged to Argentinian manager Diego Maradona's daughter Giannina and presenting the national boss with his first grandchild, Leonel Benjamin.

No other country in the world has anything like the array of striking talent possessed by Argentina. Brazil, for example, relied heavily in the qualifying campaign on Nilmar, hardly setting the world alight with 10 goals for Villarreal this season, and Luis Fabiano, who has scored consistently in recent seasons for Sevilla but doesn't rank among the elite yet. Spain will be praying that David Villa stays fit while a serious injury to Wayne Rooney would leave England wondering if it's worth making the journey to South Africa at all.

In fact, there have been few times in the history of world football when a country has been blessed with such an abundance of goalscoring talent. Given that Argentina are more than adequate in defence and in midfield, it might seem that they look a very good bet to win the World Cup for the third time.

But here's the rub. Argentina didn't just finish fourth in the South American qualifying group, thus scraping into the last available place, they were six points behind Brazil and an incredible five points behind the hardly fearsome pair of Paraguay and Chile. Their campaign included defeats by Chile, Colombia and Paraguay, a 2-0 loss to Ecuador and an amazing 6-1 thumping by a Bolivian side which won only three of its other 17 games.

It takes some talent to get such a dismal level of performance from such a gifted group of players. But the problem is that young Leonel Benjamin's granda seems to be just as exceptional a manager as he was a player, except that his Midas touch appears to be operating in reverse. Should Argentina fail in this summer's tournament, Maradona will have once more proved his ability to do the unexpected.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the skills and the goals of this remarkable group of gauchos. And wonder just how jealous Fabio Capello must feel as he spends his weekends pondering the comparative virtues of Jermain Defoe, Bobby Zamora and Darren Bent.

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