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   June 8, 2002 | 2000 IST



Battle of Wits

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Batistuta ready for showdown

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Gabriel Batistuta will play one of the most important matches of his career when Argentina meet Sweden in a do-or-die World Cup group F clash in Miyagi next week.

"On Wednesday, I'll be playing my most important match of recent times," Batistuta said on Saturday, the day after a 1-0 defeat by England in Sapporo put Argentina's World Cup hopes in jeopardy.

"I don't want to play the last match of my cycle in the national team," said the 33-year-old, who has confirmed he will retire from international football after the tournament.

"It's like a second round match or even a quarter-final for us."

Batistuta said Argentina's morale was intact despite losing to England and they were confident of beating Sweden.

"We have to show a lot of fighting spirit and will, with the conviction that we can do it, that we can't go out (of the tournament) like this (in the first round)," he said.

"We must win tactically if we can, but if not then we have to show guts or try to grind out a scrappy win," he added.

Batistuta said he did not consider the possibility of being overlooked by coach Marcelo Bielsa in favour of Hernan Crespo, his rival as central striker.

"Batistuta or Crespo, that's been a discussion for some time, but I never allow myself to get into the area that is the coach's (responsibility)," he said.


Batistuta was disappointed to be substituted by Crespo for the last half hour against England and said: "I was surprised, we were losing and I thought I could still be useful."

Twice winners Argentina have progressed beyond the first round in every World Cup tournament since 1966, apart from 1970 when they failed to qualify for the finals.

Batistuta, a veteran of three World Cup tournaments, welcomed the news that former Argentina captain Diego Maradona would be travelling to Japan to watch the team.

"Unfortunately, he won't be on the pitch," said Batistuta, a team mate of Maradona's in the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States. "But he'll give us moral support."

Argentina have one point less than Sweden and England in the group F standings after two matches. The World Cup favourites need to beat the Swedes to ensure they finish in the top two qualifying berths.

Batistuta began the tournament with a goal in Argentina's 1-0 win over Nigeria in Ibaraki seven days ago. It was his 10th, an Argentine record, in three World Cup finals.

He opened his account in a 4-0 win over Greece in Boston in 1994, the day Maradona scored the last of his then record-equalling eight goals for his country.

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