Sunday 17 December 2017

All fair in love and war for Argentina boss as Higuain hits hat-trick

Argentina 4 South Korea 1

Ian Chadband in Johannesburg

IT COULD have been Valentine's Day here the mood Diego Maradona was in. He began by embracing every one of his players in the tunnel, ended by kissing and making up with Michel Platini and had us all swooning over Argentine football again.

With Gonzalo Higuaín netting the first hat-trick in a World Cup since Gabriel Batistuta's heyday; with Lionel Messi still playing dreamily and with one foot planted firmly in the last 16 following this impressive demolition of South Korea; Maradona was asked if the apparent close, loving bond he has created in his side was at the heart of their renaissance here.

Hell, they are making him look like some coach after all the barbs. "If I have improved, it's for the players to say," he shrugged. "But it's easy if you have such a sensational team."

Sensational was the word at times as the understanding, fluidity and interplay in the Argentine attacks left a Korean side, who had looked so impressive against Greece, looking about as bewildered as their 1986 World Cup team, in which current coach Huh Jung Moo could only stop Maradona with a flying knee in the groin.

Real Madrid's Higuain may have earned the match ball, but Carlos Tevez, Messi and even 15 dazzling minutes from Sergio Aguero, which had to put pressure on his wife's dad Maradona, demonstrated it will take a superb defence to shackle such talent.

Fact: Messi has yet to score at this World Cup. It must be a mirage. "He showed again here why he's the best in the world," conceded an admiring if deflated Park Ji-Sung. His 76th-minute shot which hit a post and enabled Higuain to tap in his second was the nearest he has come with 15 tremendous goal attempts.

It would not be Maradona's Argentina, though, without a question or two to be answered at the other end. This time they hung over Martin Demichelis, the Bayern Munich centre-back, whose mind went AWOL on the stroke of half-time, allowing a game in which Argentina were strolling masters at 2-0 to become more fraught than it needed to be.

Up to that point, Korea, usually packed with energy and zest, had been strangely listless, as if hypnotised by the opposition's pass-and-move quality, and faced a hammering after Messi's 17th minute curled free-kick deflected off the hapless Park Chu Young's shin into the net and Higuain had headed home from another free kick set-piece.

But when Demichelis slumbered, allowing Bolton's Lee Chung Yong to nip in, mug him and score, the game's complexion changed. Maradona reckoned there was nothing to forgive, but Korea came out reinvigorated and if Yeom Ki-hun had converted one outstanding chance, instead of smashing the ball into the side netting, Huh felt: "it could have been different."

It was their last chance. Higuain finished the job with a tap-in from Messi's shot and a simple header from Aguero's cross.


"It's an advantage that we're now all but qualified, while teams like England and Spain are struggling," said Higuain.

"The important thing is for the team to keep winning and, in this fashion, finishing chances which we could not do last time (against Nigeria)," Higuain added.

"We showed we're in form for what we came here (to do), to win the World Cup. That's the most important thing for us... To achieve that we have to keep improving."

Higuain, the second-top scorer in Spain behind Argentina team-mate Lionel Messi with 27 in La Liga last season, has Gabriel Batistuta's record to aim for as the country's all-time top scorer with 55 in 75 matches. He scored 10 at three World Cups.

And Maradona can concentrate on winning another title instead of personal battles. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Argentina -- Romero; Demichelis, Samuel (Burdisso 23), Heinze, Gutierrez; Mascherano, Rodriguez, Di

Maria; Messi, Tevez (Aguero 75), Higuain (Bolatti 82).

South Korea -- Jung Sung-ryong; Beom-seok, Lee

Young-pyo, Cho Yong-hyung, Lee Jung-soo, Kim Jung-woo, Ki Sung-yong (Kim Nam-il 46), Park Ji-sung, Lee Chung- yong, Park Chu-young (Lee Dong-guk 81), Yeom Ki-hun.

Ref -- F De Bleeckere (Belarus).

Irish Independent

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