Diego Maradona makes his highly-anticipated return to the FIFA World Cup™ today when two group favourites, his Argentina side and Fabio Capello's England, get their campaigns underway. Maradona will make his debut as a coach in the tournament, hoping to lead La Albiceleste to victory over a Nigeria side hoping for third-time lucky and boosted by 'home' advantage.
The other game in Group B sees Otto Rehhagel's disciplined Greece take on a highly ambitious Korea Republic side, in what has all the hallmarks of a tight encounter. Despite some disappointing warm-up results – two defeats and a draw – Greece's experience may prove crucial although Huh Jung-Moo's Taeguk Warriors, who hope to include injury doubt Lee Dong-Gook in attack, showed in a recent 1-0 loss to Spain and 2-0 win over Japan that they are a force to be reckoned with.
In Group C, England coach Capello will have to compensate for the injury-enforced absences of Rio Ferdinand, ruled out of the competition altogether, and Gareth Barry, who is not yet back to full fitness. The Italian will therefore be doing his utmost to ensure that defender Ledley King remains healthy. England’s friendly results and performances in the build-up did not inspire great confidence, but they will hope to answer their critics in style against USA. The potential repositioning of Steven Gerrard just in front of the defence has the look of a temporary solution, applied to counter the incisive attacking bursts of an American team hoping to reproduce the same shock result they enjoyed in 1950.
Korea Republic-Greece, Group B, Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth, 13.30 (local time)
Argentina-Nigeria, Group B, Johannesburg (Ellis Park), 16.00 (local time)
England-USA, Group C, Rustenburg, 20.30 (local time)
The big game
Ahead of Argentina's opening match against the Super Eagles, Maradona is well aware that his chosen starting XI will provoke much discussion, analysis, criticism and praise back home. The former world champion has promised an attacking line-up, possibly with Lionel Messi operating just behind a front pairing of Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain. Maradona is likely to opt for three at the back, with Martin Demichelis and Gabriel Heinze flanking the vastly experienced Walter Samuel. Highly fancied to go far this time round due to their immense goalscoring potential, La Albiceleste will now need to confirm that potential on the pitch.
In the opposing camp, Nigeria coach Lars Lagerback, though deprived of one of his driving forces, the injured John Obi Mikel, has made it clear that his team are not in South Africa to simply make up the numbers. Nigeria have lost to Argentina at the FIFA World Cup twice before, in 1994 (1-2) and in 2002 (0-1). Nigeria fans, however, will hope that on their own continent they will constitute an altogether different prospect.
Howard v the England attack
USA's athletic goalkeeper Tim Howard may start the match with a psychological advantage over England's strike force, as none of Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey and Peter Crouch managed to get the better of the Everton custodian in the Premier League last season. Jermain Defoe stands alone in having beaten Howard, netting against him for Tottenham Hotspur in a 2-2 draw, but the American had the last laugh that day, saving the striker's potentially match-winning penalty in injury time.
What they said
"Our squad is made up of experienced players who are used to winning. That’s often crucial in this tournament. You first need to know what it feels like to win before you aim even higher," Joe Cole, England midfielder
In a twist of fate often seen in the competition, Maradona faces Nigeria in his first match as a coach in the FIFA World Cup, almost 16 years to the day since his last match as an Argentina player against the very same team.
Did you know?
England suffered one of the most surprising defeats in FIFA World Cup history in 1950, when, in their maiden campaign, they succumbed 1-0 to USA, with Joe Gaetjens grabbing the now legendary winner. The story goes that many newspaper editors back in England, unwilling to believe the news they had just been delivered, and fearing a typographical error, took the decision not to cover the match in their early editions. One English publication even went so far as to announce a 10-1 victory for the overwhelming pre-match favourites.
Tickets are hard to come by for the much-anticipated game between England and USA at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg. In fact, with a capacity of 38,646, it represents the smallest of the tournament's ten different venues, dwarfed by the 84,490 seats available at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium.