27 June ~ Old hostilities will be renewed today, but while the blood and thunder will be provided by England and Germany, there are rather different hopes for Argentina as they face Mexico. Four years ago the two met at this same stage of Germany 2006, and an epic match was settled by a jaw-dropping volley from Maxi Rodríguez. Maxi will almost certainly start again today for Argentina, as the nation's press – who enjoyed Uruguay's win yesterday– warm up for the knockout stages.
Argentina's transformation from the near train wreck of a team who scraped qualification has everyone here dreaming once more of seeing captain Javier Mascherano lift the trophy in Johannesburg on the July 11. England manager Fabio Capello commented on the eve of the tournament that Argentina had "the most talented squad at the World Cup" and Diego Maradona has suddenly started to look like the man who's brought that talent all together, rather than the pencils-up-nostrils lunatic plenty of us thought he was. All the same, weaknesses have been visible, and it'll be a relatively experimental side in some respects that takes the field against Mexico.
Having thought before the tournament of playing four centre backs across the defence in a bid to provide stability, Maradona used Jonás Gutiérrez – a left midfielder at Newcastle United – as a right-back in the first two group games. When I was a small child I once tried to get my cat to sit, stay, walk to heel and so on, with predictably poor results. For all I know, I might be a superb dog trainer. Diego Maradona, equally, might be an undiscovered expert in defensive coaching – but Jonás simply isn't a defender. Nicolás Otamendi is, though, so the young Vélez Sarsfield centre-back (who will probably be sold to AC Milan after the World Cup) who played at right-back against Greece in the last group game, will keep his place.
The more bizarre choice on Maradona's part will probably be the dropping of Seba Verón – who completed only one pass fewer than the entire Greek team put together on Tuesday – for Ángel di María, who played very poorly in the first game against Nigeria and fairly unremarkably in the second against South Korea. The added pace this will bring to the midfield will be welcome against a Mexican side who are better marshalled than Argentina's group stage opponents, but Verón's guile could well be called on later in the game.
The whole country, though, is still waiting with bated breath for Lionel Messi's first goal of this World Cup. When it arrives it'll surely be worth the wait – he's come within inches of scoring spectacularly on numerous occasions already in these finals – but no one's rushing him. After all, with Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín and Carlos Tevez playing as they are, it doesn't matter who scores, just that one of them does. They can even afford to carry Di María if needs be; after all, they already know that another member of today's midfield can win a match against the same opponents with a moment of brilliance. Argentina will pay attention to the England v Germany clásico (as it's been billed here) but the real noise will start for the Latin American clash. Here's hoping it'll be as memorable a game as last time round. Sam Kelly