Maradona still searching for winning formula

BUENOS AIRES - The ghost of World Cup failure before Diego Maradona's playing days threatens to haunt Argentina again as he fiddles for a winning formula as coach.

Maradona, his team fighting to avoid a humiliating World Cup exit, announced a string of changes on Friday for the final qualifiers next month against Peru and Uruguay.

He had already reshuffled his team, to little effect, for this month's defeats by Brazil and Paraguay.

Now Maradona is betting on the good Benfica form of midfielders Pablo Aimar, last seen in an Argentina shirt in 2007, and Angel Di Maria, back from a four-match suspension.

He has also finally decided to reward Gonzalo Higuain for his sparkling displays for Real Madrid where the striker fits in seamlessly with the expensive 'Galacticos'.

These and other call-ups are set against the discarding of several players including Maxi Rodriguez and record 138-cap defender Javier Zanetti.

That Gabriel Heinze is still there indicates Maradona appreciates the defender's fighting spirit because he is one of the least popular selections for fans and media.

Argentina need to win their last two qualifiers to at least stay in the playoff berth they occupy at present in fifth place in the South American group.


Local media speculated for 10 days while Maradona was on a European break on what was happening at the heart of his coaching staff and whether he was getting advisers imposed on him given his inexperience in the job.

"No one imposes a player on me. That's the last thing I'd put up with from anyone ... not even a suggestion about a player," Maradona told reporters after his return on Thursday.

He will sink or swim with the teams he puts out against Peru in Buenos Aires on October 10 and Uruguay in Montevideo four days later.

What he hopes to see is a team that can fight their way out of trouble, unlike the side that tamely surrendered 1-0 in Asuncion on September 9.

Before Cesar Luis Menotti was appointed coach for the 1978 World Cup on home soil, Argentina's potential was regularly wasted by a lack of organisation and constant sackings or resignations of coaches, with a consequent lack of selection consistency.

Steadying the boat brought world titles in 1978 and 1986 with just two coaches spanning the 16 years between 1974 and 1990, Menotti then Carlos Bilardo.

Maradona, taking over from Alfio Basile a year ago, was only the second coach to come on board in the middle of a four-year World Cup cycle after Marcelo Bielsa's surprise resignation in 2004 when Nestor Pekerman stepped in.

The 1986 World Cup-winning captain has called up more than 60 players for eight qualifiers and five friendlies but his appointment will probably only be judged a failure if Argentina do not get to next year's finals in South Africa.