Heavyweights set for prize fight in Hanover
One is Argentina's goalscorer and creator-in-chief. The other is the main reason why Mexico's defence has gone 258 minutes without conceding. Something may have to give, however, when Juan Roman Riquelme and Oswaldo Sánchez come face to face in Hanover in Sunday's FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005 semi-final.
As a sub-plot to what should be a fascinating contest, the pair have an individual duel to resolve, both having won two Anheuser Busch Man of the Match awards so far in the competition. Yet judging by the endless plaudits each has received from press, players and coaches alike, it is impossible to predict a winner.
The Roman era
"It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if Riquelme was voted, this year or next, the world's best player." Thus says former Colombia coach Francisco Maturana, a member of FIFA's Technical Study Group whose assesment does justice to the Argentina midfielder's performances at the FIFA Confederations Cup. Elegant, quick-witted and blessed with a prodigious shot, Riquelme has become the heart and soul of Jose Pekerman's team at the expense of his friend Pablo Aimar.
Despite being benched, the Valencia playmaker insists he is "thrilled" with Riquelme's current form, "because he is a great player who is at the top of his game". Team-mate Esteban Cambiasso concurs: "He is the point of reference for every attack we make. When the ball goes through him, we can relax because we know the move is going to end well." Nonetheless, Riquelme prefers to shy away from praise. "I am just happy to have the support of my team-mates," he said. "I am sure the reason I am playing so well right now is because I am surrounded by excellent footballers."
With two penalties and a free-kick, the Villarreal player has scored in all of Argentina's matches in Germany. His third goal of the group stage, a swerving set-piece against Germany, even brought him praise from opposition coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who said: "I was really impressed by him, he's just about the complete player."
However, Riquelme still has work to do. He turned 27 on Friday but will only be able to celebrate properly if Argentina get past the Mexicans on Sunday evening. "I am really happy with the level of our performances here, but I just hope we can raise the bar a bit more and reach the final," he told FIFAworldcup.com.
The No8 has seen Mexico play and says they are a team that look good on the ball. "We have watched several tapes of their matches, so we know what to expect and what they are capable of." Of the immovable object that is Mexico's goalkeeper, he added: "Oswaldo Sánchez is a very good keeper, but they have many other qualities." Which is why Argentina will stay "very focused and alert for the full 90 minutes. That way we'll make the final".
Sanchez, a sure thing
As with Riquelme and Argentina, so Sanchez has been a central figure for the Tricolor at this event. It is a measure of both men's contributions that only Germany's Michael Ballack and Shunsuke Nakamura of Japan can rival their two Man of the Match prizes.
For the 31-year-old Chivas player, the recognition does not go amiss. "I am delighted, especially because these individual distinctions coincide with a bit of success for the team," Sánchez told FIFAworldcup.com. International approval has been a long time coming for Sanchez, who for many years has been considered one of his country's finest custodians. That he should have achieved the breakthrough at a tournament like the FIFA Confederations Cup makes this a true career highlight. "I feel good, I am more mature now and at a good age for a goalkeeper I am experienced but still want to get better," the No1 said.
Having kept three clean sheets in the group stage, Sanchez can certainly approach the challenge of facing Argentina in confident mood. "I have played against them many times. On the last occasion, we beat them 1-0 in the Copa America in Peru. But every game is different and we want to win this one. We will do everything in our power to get the victory."
And that means stopping Riquelme. "He is a good player, a key player, but Argentina have a team full of excellent players all playing at Europe's leading clubs. Riquelme might be good, but we're hoping to have an influence on the match as well."