Maradona gives Argentina meaner streak

BUENOS AIRES - Diego Maradona is already making an impact as coach of Argentina, with his team showing a mean streak which appeared to be missing under predecessor Alfio Basile.

Maradona has made motivation and pride key issues since his surprise appointment in October and his presence on the touchline appears to have had a galvanising affect on his players.

Argentina's uncompromising performance in a sometimes niggly 2-0 win over France in Marseille on Wednesday echoed his much-repeated warning that there is no such thing as a friendly in his book.

"The most noticeable thing was the team has gained confidence and security in defence," said La Nacion.

While Lionel Messi took the plaudits for scoring Argentina's stunning second goal, defender Martin Demichelis had a superb game at the back, winning almost everything in the air.

The pairing of Javier Mascherano, given the captaincy after Maradona said he embodied the spirit he wanted to see in the team, and Fernando Gago gave the midfield a robust look.

"I'm very happy with the image the team has left," Messi told the Argentina Football Association's website (www.afa.org.ar).

"We played great football at times, we spread it around, we got stuck in, we played football. This is what we must do to keep improving. I'm proud to be in this team."

Argentina, who had won only once in eight outings before Maradona took over, have triumphed in both games under their new coach without conceding a goal.

Their first competitive match is on March 28 when they host Venezuela in a World Cup qualifier.

The big debate left by Wednesday's performance is whether there will be room for Juan Roman Riquelme, who has not featured under Maradona because of club commitments.

Basile built his team around the mercurial Boca Juniors playmaker who many see as the last of a dying breed in the increasingly frenzied modern game.

Riquelme's elegant and unhurried style and his ability to unlock defences with slide-rule passes are widely admired.

But critics say when Riquelme is present the team are forced to revolve around the playmaker and when he has a bad day he drags the rest down with him.

On Wednesday, Argentina played perfectly well without him and bringing him back could be a risk for Maradona.