Gregory Sica
Wednesday March 25th, 2009

With the South American World Cup qualifiers set to resume on the weekend after more than a five-month break, all eyes will be glued on Diego Maradona and the exploits of the Argentine national team.

Since replacing Alfio Basile as the head coach of Argentina last November, Maradona has found out that coaching the two-time world champions isn't solely based on achievements on the soccer field but also on building a strong relationship within the squad.

Earlier in March, Argentina's leading playmaker Juan Román Riquelme decided to quit the national team after a much publicized conflict with Maradona.

Riquelme claimed to be fed up of Maradona's "unfair" criticism over his performances for club side Boca Juniors, and this as well as other related factors led to his controversial decision.

Maradona would never have imagined that Riquelme would walk out on the national team with the World Cup just around the corner, but now with only a few days remaining until Argentina face Venezuela in a crucial qualifier in Buenos Aires both Maradona and Riquelme would be feeling a little regretful.

Riquelme had the tendency to slow down Argentina's midfield, and many believe this was the reason why it failed to live up to expectation in the '06 World Cup when under José Pekerman and then again in the Copa América of the following year when under Basile. But nevertheless his absence will surely be noticed.

Argentina's game plan was centered around Riquelme in both tournaments, and although neither time did the national team reach its objective, it played some spectacular attacking soccer.

Even if Riquelme has his ups and downs, particularly because of his "strange" personality, there's no doubt that he is an incredible player and that he had heaps to offer to Argentina. He might have possessed great leadership skills, but his radar-like vision and deadball accuracy -- namely his fabulous free-kicks -- will mostly be missed.

With four goals he is Argentina's highest goal scorer in the World Cup qualifiers, but he has stuck to his decision and now there's no going back.

In recent times, Riquelme hasn't seen eye to eye with a number of his Argentina teammates, and perhaps his decision was based on the lack of support he had been receiving. With so many egos in one dressing room, maybe his departure could benefit the squad.

Argentina played superb football in friendly match victories over Scotland and France in Maradona's first two games in charge. Riquelme never featured in either game, and los Albicelestes still managed to do well without him.

Having overlooked Riquelme for both matches suggested that Maradona was against the idea of having a team so dependent on one player. In fact his formations indicated that he would rather play with a more modern tactical scheme, which didn't have room for an anchor man of Riquelme's kind.

Maradona's intention is to take advantage of the speed of his players, particularly that of his exciting strike trio, which comprises of Los Trés Chiquititos: Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez.

El Diez understands that in order to win a World Cup, Argentina has to make some major changes, and perhaps not having to rely on a "classic" anchor man could improve its chances of doing this for the first time since 1986.

But we might be wrong. Maradona is evidently a fan of younger and faster players, but although he has an abundance of fresh talent to choose from he has recalled a veteran of two World Cups in Juan Sebastián Verón.

Like a fine wine Verón, 34, seems to get better with age, and the '08 South American Footballer of the Year could be a perfect replacement for Riquelme. His characteristics would fit the role nicely and many believe his inclusion was the catalyst for Riquelme's exit.

Verón is in doubt for Argentina's World Cup qualifier with Venezuela because of a toe injury, but he is likely to be a key figure of Maradona's squad in future games.

Maybe it is a little premature to make such a prediction, but judging from Maradona's unconfirmed line-up and from what he has said to the press, he may want to use a faster attacking scheme for his home games, and save his anchor man -- Verón -- for the more tactical away games, such will be the case against Bolivia in La Paz next week.

Depending on which approach is more effective throughout the qualifiers, Maradona is likely to decide how Argentina will play heading into South Africa. For now it is much too early to have any idea.

Another alternative could be that of Independiente attacking midfielder Daniel Montenegro. After the news that Riquelme had quit the national team, Maradona stated that El Rolfi would inherit the No. 10 shirt.

Since then Maradona has reassessed his decision, and said he would speak to Montenegro, Messi, and Verón before deciding who would take on "such a responsibility" which is to wear the same number that he excelled in during a 21-year career.

But Maradona and Argentina have to sort out these minor details as soon as possible so that they can focus all of their attention on the qualifiers and essentially the World Cup itself.

With less than fifteen months left before the 19th edition of the World Cup gets underway, Argentina is in a race against time to firstly find a suitable replacement for Riquelme, and secondly to build the necessary confidence required to win a World Cup.

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