WORLD CUP SOCCER
Lionel Messi, right with Khalid Boulahrouz of the Netherlands, started for Argentina yesterday, as a pair of starters rested.
Don't cry for this tie
New World Cup favorite Argentina dominates the Netherlands despite resting two starters
FRANKFURT, Germany » The fans bang their drums and sing: "Argentina, I love you more every day."
That's what the neutral observers are thinking, too.
Jose Pekerman underlined the strength of his squad by sending out Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez for their first World Cup starts yesterday so that Javier Saviola and Hernan Crespo might rest their legs and avoid the threat of suspension.
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» Portugal 2, Mexico 1
» Iran 1, Angola 1, tie
» Netherlands 0, Argentina 0, tie
» Ivory Coast 3, Serbia-Montenegro 2
» Ghana vs. U.S., 4 a.m. (ESPN; replay at 11 a.m. on ESPN Classic)
Although his "backup" strike force didn't score in a 0-0 tie with the Netherlands, Argentina provided more evidence that it is a prime contender for a third World Cup title.
Pekerman's team has taken over from five-time winner and defending champion Brazil as the bookmakers' favorite, and it's not just because the Brazilians have yet to hit top form.
Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and the men in yellow have stuttered so far, and they might struggle to contend with this Argentina lineup that looks more confident and accomplished with each game.
The frightening thing for its rivals is that Pekerman says there are "still a few things lacking." He aims to put that right in the next few days before his players take on Mexico in Leipzig on Saturday.
The fact yesterday's result was a goal-less tie did not reflect the game. Until the last few minutes when the Dutch threatened, there was only one team in it.
Argentina wove passing patterns around the Dutch midfielders and defenders, with Tevez, Messi and Juan Riquelme turning them in one direction and the other. Messi and Riquelme left the field to deafening ovations from the 10,000 Argentina fans in the Frankfurt stadium, and Tevez deserved his man-of-the-match award.
The stocky striker, who plays in Brazil for Corinthians, almost captured all three points in the final minutes when he collected a flick of a pass from yet another Argentine striker, the lanky Julio Cruz, controlled the ball and shaved the near post with a left-footed drive.
Earlier, he ran at the Dutch defense and drove a powerful shot that goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar pushed around the post with a quality one-handed save.
Messi, who turns 19 on Saturday, was sidelined for the last three months of the European season and missed out on Barcelona's Champions League final victory over Arsenal. Although he played the last 16 minutes of Argentina's 6-0 rout of Serbia-Montenegro and scored the sixth goal, the fans who see him as the latest Diego Maradona have been waiting for his initial World Cup start.
The teenager with a Beatles haircut was greeted with a loud roar every time he touched the ball. He ran at two or three defenders at a time, and one 30-yard run before halftime ended with a firm shot and a save.
Behind Tevez and Messi is Riquelme, who strolls around the field as if he owns it.
The playmaker, from Spanish club Villarreal, ambles around spreading passes all over the field, and takes all the free kicks and corners.
Because his two strikers are small, Riquelme doesn't waste his set piece kicks with floated crosses. He spears them powerfully right at the heart of the goalmouth so that any slight deflection likely puts the ball in the back of the net.
When he drove a first-half free kick toward the near post, Tevez was first to try to turn it home, but the ball bounced off Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz and hit the post.
While it didn't work this time in terms of goals, Mexico had better watch out for whoever Pekerman plays in his attack.
Now the studious, quiet coach has to decide whether to recall Saviola and Crespo, whose initial yellow cards have now been wiped away, or keep Messi and Tevez in his starting lineup. He gave nothing away.
"Wait and see," he said.
We can't wait.
Portugal 2, Mexico 1
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany » Portugal powered into the second round of the World Cup. Mexico scrambled through.
Luiz Felipe Scolari's makeshift Portugal team, featuring five backups, finished a sweep of its opening-round games by beating Mexico yesterday. Scolari extended his World Cup record of consecutive coaching victories to 10, seven with Brazil in 2002 and three here.
Mexico, coming off a win and a draw, missed a penalty kick and played the last 30 minutes with 10 men. But its door to the knockout round opened when Angola drew with Iran.
Iran 1, Angola 1
LEIPZIG, Germany » Angola's first World Cup goal wasn't nearly enough to send the Black Antelopes into the second round of the tournament. Sohrab Bakhtiarizadeh scored the tying goal in the 75th minute for Iran.
Needing a win, a Mexico loss to Portugal and help on goal differential to move on, the Angolans couldn't deliver the one part they controlled.
Substitute Flavio gave Angola its first goal of the tournament when he broke free from Kaabi Hossein in the penalty box to head a cross from Ze Kalanga over goalkeeper Ebrahim Mirzapour and into the net.
Ivory Coast 3, Serbia-Montenegro 2
MUNICH, Germany » Another 2-0 deficit wasn't enough to stop orange-clad Ivory Coast from stomping away in its elephant dance.
Taking advantage of two handballs by Milan Dudic that led to goals, Ivory Coast beat Serbia-Montenegro on Bonaventure Kalou's penalty shot in the 86th minute.
Aruna Dindane scored the Elephants' other two goals in a game as thrilling as it was sloppy, with thunder and lightning over head and explosive play by two teams that had already been eliminated.