Argentine joy tempered by Bolivia battering

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BUENOS AIRES - The euphoria which surrounded Diego Maradona's competitive debut as Argentina coach has turned to alarm and bewilderment following Wednesday's 6-1 defeat in Bolivia at high altitude. Argentina gave Maradona a dream start by beating Venezuela 4-0 last Saturday on a day when the coach said that reality was better than fiction. Five days later, facing one of the region's weakest teams, they conceded six goals for the first time since 1958. Maradona, still in the honeymoon phase after his surprise appointment last October, was spared direct criticism but there was huge concern at what happens next after his side dropped down the South American World Cup qualifying group. "Get me the calculator," said a headline in the sports daily Ole. Argentina have slipped to fourth in the 10-team group with 19 points, the lowest position in which they could finish and qualify directly for the South Africa finals in 2010. A fifth place finish would mean playing off over two legs against a team from the CONCACAF region for a place. Sixth would mean the unthinkable: missing out for the first time since 1970. Worryingly for Argentina, they face a difficult run-in, including another visit to high altitude to face Ecuador, where they lost 1-0 last time around, and a trip to Paraguay, where they were also beaten. They must also host arch-rivals Brazil and finish off against neighbours Uruguay in Montevideo -- not a game in which they would want to need three points. Most commentators agreed that the unusual conditions at 3,600 metres above sea level in La Paz could explain a defeat, but not one by such a margin. UNPREDICTABLE BOLIVIA Bolivia are far from invincible in La Paz -- they lost to Chile earlier in the campaign and were held to draws by Colombia and Uruguay. Argentina won 2-1 there four years ago and held on for a 3-3 draw on their previous visit. "It's right to say that up there, the legs weigh more, reflexes are not the same, there is never enough air for exhausted lungs and the ball appears to travel with supersonic speed," wrote Miguel Angel Bertolotto in Clarin. "But none of these difficulties can explain the alarming lack of basics shown by 90 percent of the Argentine players. Playing like they did on that black Wednesday, the team would have lost to this very modest Bolivia, or any other team, on the pampas." Bolivia coach Erwin Sanchez said that Argentina may have contributed to their downfall by playing their instinctive attacking game. "Argentina tried to play football and that helped us a lot," he said. Ironically, Maradona has been a fierce supporter of Bolivia's right to play in La Paz. He refused to blame altitude for the result on Wednesday and had played down the factor before the game. "The coach wanted to break the taboo of the 3,650 metres but in reality, it's an opponent which has always been more worrying that anything the Bolivia team can offer," said La Nacion. Overall, there was complete bewilderment at why a team which had played so convincingly in friendlies against Scotland and France and then against Venezuela should capitulate so badly against Bolivia.