Martin Palermo, 89
Argentina have strolled their way into the last 16 after defeating a dull, dreary and defensive Greek side in the final game of Group B.
The world’s greatest player, Lionel Messi, stepped up to lead his country after Argentine coach and former world-beater Maradona made 7 changes to the side that beat South Korea. Both Tevez and Mascherano were out and Argentina, who had already done enough to qualify, looked certain to face their fellow Latin Americans, Mexico, in the next round as winners of the group.
Greece on the other hand had it all to play for. Only a win could give them a chance of making the final 16 by their own hand but the side that won Euro 2004 with a series of one nil wins refused to step up to the gauntlet, playing with a distinct lack of creativity, drive or desire. They appeared instead to be hoping for a goalless draw and the right result between Nigeria and South Korea to see them through.
The Greeks smothered the famously firey Argentine attack like a wet blanket, their negative tactics best summed up by the dogged man-marking of Messi by Papaststhopoulos. Messi’s every move was hounded by the big Greek defender and all credit to him for sticking to what must have been at times a thankless task, for man and country.
The Greek kill-off worked for most of the first half and other than a promising shot from outside the box from Veron, Argentina only had one clear chance. Perpetually cool, calm and collected, Veron found Maxi Rodriguez from a corner just inside the box on 45 minutes but his beautiful chest control and stinging shot were well dealt with by the keeper. Messi managed to shake off his shadow to find room for a swiftly executed shot from the rebound but this too was well saved by the keeper. After this promising flourish all but the Greeks were sorry to see the Argentine flow, so slow to emerge, be cut short by the half time whistle.
The game kicked off again and the firecracker finish to the first half quickly turned into a familiar damp-squib thanks to the Greek party-poopers. They had a few rare moments of promise, all coming from lone striker Samaras who looked sharp and hungry, albeit all alone, in the Argentine half. His left foot shot on the 47th minute was the best chance in the game for either side but it would have been an unjust reward for a wholly unimaginative Greek tragedy.
Perhaps it was the threat of this injustice that fired up the favourites who bounced back with a decent 20 minute attacking spell. When the ball dropped onto the head of Demichelis in the box in the 7th minute it looked a certain goal, but the ball bounced back off an Argentine player and it was left to Demichelis to fire the rebound emphatically into the top of the net from 6 yards. Surprising that with all that striking prowess the breakthrough should come from a defender.
Argentina’s second and decisive goal came from a similarly unlikely source. Some great work from Messi on the edge of the box opened up a shooting opportunity and although the keeper did well to deny his shot, the parry fell to the feet of Palermo who side-footed home in clinical fashion. The 37 year old had been brought out of the wilderness by coach Maradona, whose open mouthed touchline celebration was reminiscent of the pre-drug scandal eyeful he gave spectators during USA ’94. That game was also against Greece.
Never one to shy from the limelight it was also on this day 24 years ago that the great Maradona secured his place in the history books with that ‘hand of God’ goal and god-like surging run against England. If Argentina keep up their winning form in this competition then he may be on his way to the record books again.
Greece: Tzorvas, Moras, Papadopoulos, Vyntra, Torosidis (Patsatzoglou, 55), Kyrgiakos, Papaststhopoulos, Tziolis, Karagounis Captain (Spyropoulos, 46), Katsouranis (Yellow card) (Ninis, 54), Samaras
Argentina: Romero, Demichelis, Rodriguez, Burdisso, Otamendi, Bolatti (yellow card), Veron, Maxi (Di Maria, 63), Messi, Aguero (Pastore, 77), Milito (Martin Palermo, 80)