By Ridge Mahoney
The incredible dipping shot that Maxi Rodriguez drilled over Mexican goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez in extra time decided the tense round-of-16 match for Argentina, yet the match was truly won at the other end of the field.
Stuck in glide mode for much of the game, as if they would rather tango than tangle, the lordly Argentines had their dainty dancing toes stomped on by a fleet of feisty, focused Mexicans and needed a stunning strike from the skies to subdue them. Mexico took the lead in the sixth minute and despite conceding an equalizer just four minutes later, repeatedly stormed through a disjointed Argentine midfield to pierce the back line, only to be thwarted by a duck clad in red.
Goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri, nicknamed El Pato, is one of two representatives of Boca Juniors, whose most famous son, Diego Maradona, has been noisily visible at this World Cup. Abbondanzieri made his international debut only two years ago. He is modest in demeanor, and rarely flails wildly or screams incessantly as do so many of his counterparts.
He is an afterthought on this team in the minds of many, so glittering are the names that appear after his on the roster: Roberto Ayala, Esteban Cambiasso, Hernan Crespo, Lionel Messi, Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Saviola, Juan Pablo Sorin, Carlos Tevez, and on this night, certainly, Rodriguez.
But Argentina wouldn't be in the quarterfinals without Abbondanzieri. Mexico's control of the match delivered numerous crosses into the goalmouth, which Abbondanzieri usually handled flawlessly, and a pair of stinging Jared Borgetti shots that he repelled superbly. Midway through the first half, Borgetti cut loose a 22-yard shot that arrowed toward the top corner until Abbondzanieri stretched to tip away. Nine minutes into the second half a looping cross cleared Sorin and was collected by Borgetti, whose smoking shot was stabbed to safety by Abbondanzeiri's right hand.
He also scrambled to smother a deflected just as it was about to spin out of play for a corner and came out confidently to collect crosses. Aside from one bobble that he quickly recovered, the current Argentine goalkeeper smoothly frustrated one of his predecessors.
For most of the first half, Argentina scrambled to contain the Mexicans, who'd been prepared most meticulously by Coach Ricardo La Volpe, who sat on the bench as the No. 3 goalkeeper during Argentina's 1978 World Cup triumph. Mindful that the Argentines' dependence on Riquelme's playmaking often leaves them with three across in midfield, he sent multiple players at the outside backs to force the midfielders to help out on the flanks, which in turn pulled open the middle.
Not until the second half, when Sorin dropped into a deeper position to form a five-man back line, and Mascherano tucked back to buttress the middle, did Argentina assert itself defensively in midfield. Those changes often deprived Riquelme of support, and in the 75th minute, Pekerman began throwing attackers on the field. Messi came on for Crespo and Tevez for Saviola in straight swaps up front, but Pekerman also replaced Cambiasso, a two-way player not having a glorious night, with the strictly offensive Pablo Aimar.
So with six minutes left in regulation and the game deadlocked, Pekerman had not only burned all his subs, he'd also left Mascherano and Rodriguez to hold down midfield. La Volpe, too, had used his three substitutions -- one of them being Zinha for Morales -- and the teams buckled down, knowing the game and their World Cup fates would be decided on a mistake, or a moment of brilliance, or penalties.
With his flowing black hair, rampaging runs up the wing, and elegant left foot, Sorin is one of the modern game's most vivid images. He's neither defender nor midfielder but a unique hybrid of the two. He's also the captain of this star-studded side, and for all the mesmerizing dribbles and insidious touches Messi and Tevez brought to the game, it was Sorin who created the winning goal with one of his trademark traits.
From midfield near the left touchline, he swung a crossfield ball toward the right edge of the penalty area, which the Mexican defense should have cleared. But with Messi, Aimar and Tevez marked up in the goalmouth, no one pushed out to challenge for the ball.
Rodriguez did the rest with a classic display of fundamental skill, exquisitely executed as to belie its difficulty. He killed the ball with his chest and as it dropped, slashed the ball with the outside of his left foot toward the far post. The ball dipped as it swerved, or vice versa, and swooped over goalie Oswaldo Sanchez's desperate dive down into the net. Fantastico! Golazo!
Masses of blue-and-white jerseys and scarves and flags roiled and a deafening roar drowned out all else. For much of the game, sections of blue-and-white and those of green had vied to overpower the other with cheers and songs and chants. The green had been in louder voice, with good reason for much of the match, but the majesty and power of what they'd seen and felt stunned them.
Mexico roused itself as best it could, but ideas and energy dried up as the minutes raced by. For Argentina, the roar at the final whistle was one of relief, not euphoria.