Argentina to Face its First Real Test

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As the dust begins to settle on the group stage, we know the identities of the teams that will contest two of the eight games that will determine the quarter finals: Argentina, having sailed through a ridiculously easy group, will face Mexico, which shut out hosts South Africa to make second place in Group A, while Uruguay will face South Korea — an opponent that will run their socks off, but whose pace and commitment may not be enough to rattle the well-organized Uruguayans or contain the deadly skills of Diego Forlan, who over three games has so far been possibly the tournament’s most effective forward .

Argentina, in fact, may have the more difficult passage to the Quarters.

For all the oohing and aahing over Argentina’s embarrassment of riches in attack — the outrageously gifted Messi, and then the Solomonic choice alongside him of playing only two of Millito, Higuain, Tevez and Aguero — coach Maradona’s defense, and his formation, has hardly been tested by the opponents they’ve faced so far. Sure, Greece produced its trademark stifling game to deny Argentina until close on the 80th minute, but they rarely put Argentina’s defense under pressure.

Nigeria are a pale shadow of their former selves, but they more than once exposed the folly of Maradona playing without a right back and instead asking winger Jonas Gutierrez to drop deep and defend: Nigeria’s left wing was a constant source of danger to Argentina, and Gutierrez had a torrid time. A side with a more capable midfield than Nigeria’s could have made it a much more interesting contest, because Javier Mascherano was the lone holding player who could have found himself outnumbered by a battling opposition midfield. South Korea were trounced by Argentina’s slick passing game, and spent most of the game on the rack — but the goal they nicked just before half time, when the pace of Lee Chung Yong running at De Michelis under pressure forced him into an error that allowed the Koreans to pull one back. Again, a contest against limited opposition can put any defender to sleep, but anyone concerned at the lack of pace among the three center-backs deployed by Maradona might have seen cause for concern in that goal.

Until now, Maradona has set his side up the way a coach might do if the opposing side had had a man sent off — lose a defender or defensive midfielder, and add another forward. And they’ve been able to roll over lesser opposition with comparative ease.

But Mexico will be aiming to give the Argentines more of a fight, siccing their third centerback cum holding player, Rafa Marquez, onto his Barcelona teammate Leonel Messi, hoping to make life difficult for Mascherano in the midfield and to deny Maradona’s playmaker, Veron, time on the ball that opponents until now have been too generous with — and most importantly, letting their young wide men Vela and Dos Santos run the ball at Argentina’s less mobile defenders and use their pace to get in behind them.

The two sides met in a thrilling quarter final at the last World Cup, where they were tied after 90 minutes, and all that separated them in extra time was a volleyed goal by Maxi Rodriguez that many rated as the best of the tournament.

Each squad includes at least five veterans of that clash, and revenge is very much in Mexican minds. This matchup, rather than anything we’ve seen in the group stage, will be the first real test of whether Argentina has the steel at the back to support its skills up front and be in with a chance of winning the tournament.