The backbone of Argentina's World Cup team, which suffered a shock early exit from the 2002 finals, was weak, the country's 1986 tournament-winning coach Carlos Bilardo said on Thursday.
Coach Marcelo Bielsa's pre-tournament favourites were sent packing after a 1-1 draw with Sweden in Miyagi on Wednesday left them to finish third in the so-called Group of Death.
"The team's backbone was not in good shape," said Bilardo, who steered the Argentina team captained by Diego Maradona to their second World Cup victory in Mexico in 1986 and the final in Italy four years later.
"(Argentina started) not knowing whether (Pablo) Cavallero or (German) Burgos would be in goal, the sweeper (Roberto Ayala) had no reserve, (Diego) Simeone wasn't match fit (in central midfield) and it was (Gabriel) Batistuta or (Hernan) Crespo up front, and we're talking about the spine of the team," he told Reuters in an interview.
"I'd been saying it for a year, they needed to find a reserve for the libero and look, he didn't even play," said Bilardo, who is covering the World Cup with an Argentine television company.
Ayala, also the team's captain, pulled a thigh muscle minutes before kick-off in Argentina's opening match against Nigeria, which they won 1-0 after reshuffling the back three.
Bilardo had a similar experience to Bielsa in Mexico in 1986 when his first choice sweeper, Daniel Passarella who had captained Argentina to their first title in 1978, was struck down by illness before the tournament.
Jose Luis Brown stepped into Passarella's shoes and had a fine tournament, even headed the opening goal in Argentina's 3-2 win over West Germany in the Mexico City final.
Bielsa, whose side were favoured to win the country's third title after a brilliant 18-match qualifying campaign, arrived in Japan with an apparent great strength in depth but doubts about his goalkeeper and central striker.
He only really resolved the problem in goal by choosing Cavallero, beaten only by a penalty and a free kick in three games.
"(Argentina) have been working badly for three World Cups," Bilardo said, looking back at second round elimination in 1994 under Alfio Basile and the quarter-final defeat of Passarella's side by the Netherlands in France four years ago.
"A World Cup is different from working with a club where you win, you lose, here you have to pass (the exam)," he said.
"I always use the example of (university studies in) medicine," said Bilardo, a qualified doctor.
"You can do well all year but afterwards in the final exam, comes the question how much morphine, and you say 3.5 and he (the examiner) says to you wrong, and that's that, out."