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   26 May, 2002 | 1819 IST


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Happy headache for Bielsa

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Cesar Luis Menotti, the man who steered Argentina to their first World Cup victory in 1978, approves of the philosophy of present coach Marcelo Bielsa.

But he differs on one fundamental count, saying: "He believes football is predictable, I don't".

Bielsa works in training to minimise the risk of surprises, giving players the tactical framework to let their skills do the talking where it matters most, on the pitch.

But he admits there are decisions even he has to make with a large element of chance -- not least whether to play Gabriel Batistuta or Hernan Crespo as the main striker in their opening World Cup group F game against Nigeria in Ibaraki on June 2.

"Neither of them favours or impedes the way the team plays. They're both valid's very difficult to decide," he said at Argentina's bunker at Naraha, a J-Village 200 kilometres north of Tokyo normally used by Japan to train their national teams.

"The only factor that would make me go for one or the other is their form. If they both get there (to the Nigeria match) in equal form I don't know how one decides," added Bielsa.

Bielsa, a typical coach from a middle class background who underachieved as a professional player, is unlikely to change his habit of revealing his decision at the last moment when he has to hand in his signed team sheet before kickoff against Nigeria.

"In reality it's a decision I haven't taken, that of the centre-forward. But in no way can I imagine that having two footballers of such stature available should constitute a problem," he said.

"I see it differently to the way the problem is put to me. I trust in my intuition. I also don't think it's such a significant issue. I'm sure that whichever decision I take will be good," he added, reflecting his confidence that both players can do a job.


"Throughout the 38 matches we have played, I have always understood that the team had to be prepared to offer more than one option to the same necessity.

"In fact, there is no position in the team that has been occupied exclusively by only one (player)."

The dichotomy is there, however, in the minds of followers of the game in Europe and South America.

Batistuta is an icon of the Argentine game, and in Italy where he has played club football for a decade with Fiorentina and AS Roma, who he helped win the Serie A crown in 2001.

He holds Argentina's scoring record of 55 goals in 75 internationals, a phenomenal rate, and his country's World Cup record of nine goals, including two hat-tricks, in the two previous World Cup tournaments.

But former Argentina coach Daniel Passarella seemed to pick Batistuta almost reluctantly for France '98 and controversially substituted him for Crespo during the second half of their memorable second round match against England in St-Etienne.

The 26-year-old Crespo, seven years Batistuta's junior and reared by Passarella at River Plate, top scored for Argentina with nine goals in only 12 of their 18 South American qualifying games.

The Lazio striker can perhaps contribute more to ball winning and launching attacks than Batistuta and only a recent injury has interrupted his rich vein of form.

But Batistuta, who has only played in six of Argentina's 24 games this century and found the net in four, can be relied on to score almost every time he pulls on their number nine shirt.


If there was any hint Bielsa might go for Batistuta rather than Crespo for a tough opening match in a difficult group that also includes games with England in Sapporo on June 7 and Sweden in Miyagi on June 12, it was something he said about experience.

A World Cup newcomer himself, Bielsa highlighted "the calm that the veterans transmit (to the squad)".

Bielsa had one or two pairs of younger legs he could have picked for the World Cup, most notably Barcelona's 20-year-old striker Javier Saviola.

Instead, he opted for 35-year-old Claudio Caniggia in a squad with an average age of 28-1/2, higher than either of Argentina's World Cup-winning sides in 1978 and 1986.

He believes in the hunger of his veterans to win the World Cup after, in some cases, two failures.

The bulk of his team reached the quarter-final four years ago under Passarella well before the peak age now reached by the likes of 27-year-old Juan Sebastian Veron and Ariel Ortega.

Bielsa also derives calm from a belief that while the vast majority of his compatriots are suffering the ravages of economic chaos and social upheaval, and World Cup victory would alleviate some of the pain, he and his players do not hold the answer to their woes even if they have to contend with their expectations.

They merely represent their hopes of a sporting triumph.

"We're going to play football. Argentina has outstanding players and we know we're closer to the objective, which is to win, if we play well," he said.

"You can add a lot of conditioning to this... But this is merely a football match, an aesthetic, visual, artistic event that we have all the hopes in the world of offering to the Argentine people.

"But in no way are we going to see it as a substitute for anything else," he said.

"What I mean is that if our people were prosperous, that wouldn't exonerate us from fulfilling our obligation -- to try to play good football."

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