Form and history favour Argentina against unpredictable Greece on Tuesday when Group B at the FIFA World Cup™ draws to a close.
The South Americans have been the most impressive performers so far in the four-yearly spectacle being hosted by South Africa, defeating Nigeria 1-0 and Korea Republic 4-1 at Johannesburg's Ellis Park and Soccer City. And striker Gonzalo Higuain has scored the only hat-trick to date at the tournament, using his head and feet to torment the Koreans in the afternoon sunshine before 82,000 appreciative onlookers.
Now they take a four-hour coach journey north from their Pretoria base to Polokwane for a floodlit match at a stadium where freezing conditions forced French players to wrap themselves in blankets three days ago. Coach Diego Maradona needs no introduction to Greece. Apart from watching video recordings of a 2-0 loss to South Korea and 2-1 victory over 10-man Nigeria, he has faced them in the FIFA World Cup.
His mind will rewind to 21 June 1994 at Foxboro Stadium in the United States and a 4-0 triumph in which he scored once and Gabriel Batistuta completed a hat-trick with a penalty 60 seconds from full-time. But darker days lay ahead with Maradona kicked out of his last FIFA World Cup as a footballer and Argentina failing in their quest for a third title after winning at home in 1978 and in Mexico eight years later.
Many observers believe a third title could come on 11 July in Johannesburg, but Maradona knows the FIFA World Cup is a marathon not a sprint and the steepest obstacles come in the knockout phase. So far, so good for Argentina, though, who have been pleasant on the eye with workaholic FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi doing just about everything except score. "I have to congratulate my players because everything they have done so far has worked out well. I am very happy at this World Cup," said Maradona after a training session.
While only a heavy loss at Peter Mokaba Stadium and victory for South Korea over Nigeria could deprive Argentina of a place among the last 16, the Greeks are desperate for points. A draw would suffice if Nigeria defeat South Korea in Durban, but an Asian triumph leaves the former European champions with no choice but to win as well and leave mathematicians to sort out the goal difference.
"We learnt a lot from our mistakes against the Koreans and still have hopes of getting through. We will do our best against Argentina," promised Dimitris Salpingidis who equalised against Nigeria. But many wonder if Greece would have won in Bloemfontein had Nigerian Sani Kaita not lost his head before half-time and been sent off for a wild assault on an opponent.
It may not be a four-goal hiding this time, but having won on the field against the Greeks, Maradona is likely to repeat the feat as a coach and set his team up for a second round showdown against the Group A runners-up.