DCSIMG

Team Maradona test Scots to the full

Scotland 0, Argentina 1 AMID the circus that surrounds Diego Maradona it was almost forgotten an international challenge match, to give a friendly it's modern day title, between Scotland and Argentina was behind his visit to these shores.

His first trip to Hampden came as the South Americans arrived as World Cup holders 29 years ago, Maradona then a youngster whose potential had still to be realised although that day he gave everyone a glimpse of what was to come as he left the Tartan Army enthralled.

Much water has passed under the bridge since then, 91 caps and 34 goals for his country, a glittering career followed by a descent into the murky world of drug and alcohol abuse.

Throughout, Maradona has never lost that aura, naturally revered at home and almost as much in this country thanks to the infamous "Hand of God" which saw Argentina knock England out of the 1986 World Cup, his sumptuous second goal almost an irrelevance on this side of the Border.

That moment threatened to overshadow the reason for Maradona's return, then England captain Terry Butcher unable to remember he was speaking as Scotland boss George Burley's right-hand man as he dwelt on the little midfielder's transgression and the bitterness he still felt.

Butcher was virtually alone, Maradona receiving a rapturous welcome as he strode out of the tunnel, his rehabilitation from those dark days which threatened to take his life complete as he proudly took his seat as Argentina's new manager.

In the opposite dug-out was Burley, in opposition back in June 1979, but, like Maradona, a fledgling international manager, the difference being Argentina's new No.1 has a squad of superstars such as Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Javier Zanetti, Fernando Gago and, absent on this occasion, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero at his disposal.

Burley, on the other hand, was left scratching around following seven call-offs in the build-up to this match, Scotland's last before facing Holland in a crunch World Cup qualifying match in Amsterdam in March.

And if the Scotland boss felt able to pronounce himself well satisfied following these 90 minutes, the gulf in class between the countries doesn't appear to have narrowed much since he himself lined up against Argentina.

A goal to the good after just eight minutes, Maxi Rodriguez completing a thrilling move involving Tevez and Jonas Gutierrez which cut the Scottish defence open with the precision of a surgeon's knife, the South Americans threatened to run riot, forcing Burley to admit that for a spell his players "just couldn't get near them".

It was typical Scottish grit and determination rather than craft, skill and guile which stemmed the tide although you sensed Tevez and Co were playing well within themselves, their most anxious moment coming through a mix-up between goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo and Martin Deminchelis which gave James McFadden a glimpse of the target. Whether the presence of any or, indeed, all seven of those who had absented themselves and a fully fit Barry Ferguson in midfield – the Scotland skipper was virtually anonymous as he continues his rehabilitation from ankle surgery – would have made any difference was debatable although Burley, like Maradona, insisted there were plenty of positive points he could take from the match.

He said: "It was a great work-out. We knew we were going against one of the best football nations in the world. It was tremendous to bring Argentina to Hampden and you could see the top quality individuals they have.

"For the first 20 minutes they totally dominated us with their movement. Their strikers are very clever, drifting into space and giving us lost of problems."

The work ethic within Maradona's side was also a factor, Tevez and his fellow striker Ezequiel Lavezzi not above pressing the Scottish defence, preventing Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus from building from the back while Liverpool's Mascherano provided a security blanket in front of the Argentinian back four which allowed others the freedom to get forward and play.

Burley observed: "We were driven too deep, our midfield didn't really get into position to close them down. But after that we got to grips with the game, we got higher up the park and gave them problems."

Derby County's Kris Commons provided the greatest threat, whipping in a number of dangerous crosses which caused problems for a defence uncomfortable against the physical presence of Chris Iwelumo and then Lee Miller.

A few anxious moments was as much as the Scots could manage, leaving an indignant Maradona to rebuff one of his country's journalists who had the temerity to suggest that while his side had won, it hadn't been the resounding victory those early minutes suggested.

"Are you Scottish?" Maradona bridled. "I do not agree, I think it was a clear victory. For the first 25 minutes we played some brilliant football, scored a goal, but unfortunately we did not manage to convert any of our other half-chances.

"We kept the ball pretty much throughout the match and I felt it was a deserved victory."

Burley wouldn't disagree, the upcoming clash with Holland of more concern to him than yet another Hampden friendly without a win, a run which now stretches back some 12 years.

He said: "Holland are another top ten team so it was great to pit our wits against one of the best. I'm sure the fans enjoyed seeing a nation like Argentina coming to Hampden.

"I enjoyed playing against Maradona – the best player I've ever played against – and I am sure our players enjoyed playing against the likes of Tevez this time. We wanted to be tested, Holland is going to be tough but this was a great experience, we were pushed to the limit and we held our own.

"There were a lot of positives we can take into the Holland game."

The number of players handed their first caps by Burley rose to 12 with the introduction of Miller and Scott Robertson while others such as Hearts' Christophe Berra and Motherwell striker David Clarkson enjoyed valuable minutes at this level. But, nevertheless, Burley will be hoping that come March he does have the experience of Kenny Miller, Darren Fletcher and Craig Gordon – although McGregor did no wrong – available alongside a fully fit Ferguson and Allan Hutton.

Maradona, who, naturally, dwelt on not only a victory in his first match but the massively positive reaction he had enjoyed from his players, supporting him not only through his debut as national manager but the personal worry of his pregnant daughter Giannina. With a private jet waiting to whisk him back to Madrid to be with her and son-in-law to be Aguero, the Atletico Madrid star, Maradona, nevertheless, looked in relaxed mood afterwards, laughing and joking when asked if he'd managed to speak to Butcher.

"Who is Butcher?" he asked impishly, well aware of the answer, insisting that was the first time he'd managed to crack a smile since hearing of Giannina's miscarriage worries.

And he was diplomacy itself when asked the obligatory question as to what he thought of Scotland's chances of qualifying for the World Cup finals in 2010. He said: "I think Scotland are a fine side with some good players. But technically I felt we were better, a different level of skill. Scotland, though, have a chance of fighting in the group to qualifying but they maybe need to raise their game a bit."

Again, he won't find Burley dissenting.

 
 
 

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