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6 of 021

The world's eyes on Maradona

Glenn Gibbons
NO DUG-OUT in history will have commanded more attention than the one that is to be occupied by Diego Maradona at Hampden Park tonight, when the recently-appointed head coach of Argentina oversees his team's first outing against Scotland.

Even if the attendance falls substantially below the national stadium's 52,000 capacity, the anticipated 35,000 or so will still represent a considerable increase on the figure the SFA would normally expect for a friendly at this time of year.

The deepened interest is entirely attributable to the presence of a man who drew a crowd to his arrival at Glasgow Airport on Sunday that would have been the envy of senior football clubs throughout the land. Such will be the focus on Argentina's most revered sporting hero that it would be no surprise to discover that some photographers from the South American country will have been directed to abandon the match itself in the cause of capturing Maradona's every twitch, cough and spit during the 90 minutes of his maiden voyage.

Maradona's notoriety, the dark years as a cocaine and booze-fuelled physical and mental wreck, seems merely to have enhanced his celebration as a player whose authentic genius illuminated the game on a global scale.

Even members of the Tartan Army are likely to approach tonight's match with a certain ambiguity, desirous of a sound performance and good result for Scotland while wishing the opposing manager success in his new role.

George Burley, of course, cannot afford to share this conflict of emotions, the Scotland manager mindful solely of the need to exploit the occasion as the last opportunity to assess his players in action before the World Cup qualifying double-header away to the Netherlands and at home to Iceland at the end of March and the beginning of April.

"Maradona has created interest and that's great," said Burley. "But the media attention he has been given in the build-up to the match hasn't interfered with our focus.

"We have our own agenda, we know what we want to do in the match, and it will all be geared towards our meetings with Holland and Iceland in the spring."

Every football team is a continuous work in progress, never completed, but it could be said that Burley's has fallen behind schedule, thanks to the defeat in Macedonia and the draw with Norway at home that have left the Scots with just four points from their first three matches in Group 9 of the 2010 World Cup qualifying.

The manager conceded yesterday that the benefit to accrue from a meeting with Argentina would have to be general, rather than specific, in that it would be impossible to make a direct correlation between a friendly against the South Americans and a visit to Amsterdam for a competitive match against the group favourites.

Having confirmed that Barry Ferguson will return as captain, that Allan McGregor will replace the injured Craig Gordon in goal and that Chris Iwelumo will play in attack, Burley added: "In friendly matches, whoever you're playing, it's about looking at your own team, examining partnerships, seeing how players cope with all the examinations international football presents.

"If you're playing top-quality opponents, as we are, so much the better, the more you'll find out. I've had my team and the shape they'll play in my mind for a while and the call-offs we've had won't really change that. Yes, we've lost Darren Fletcher from midfield, but we had also lost Barry Ferguson for a long time and we've dealt with it and now Barry's back."

Burley's words suggested Ferguson will be a straight replacement for the Manchester United man and that he will minimise changes to the team which played the scoreless draw with Norway. With another midfielder who started the Norway game, James Morrison, also a casualty, it seems most likely that he will be replaced by Barry Robson.

Burley has decisions to make over the full-backs. Alan Hutton, now recovered from injury, is expected to regain the place on the right taken by his former Rangers team-mate, Kirk Broadfoot.

On the left, Burley has to choose from two players, Gary Naysmith and Jamie McAllister, who have not played for a month.

Burley dismisses the idea that the Scots could spend the night chasing shadows and, as a consequence of being comprehensively outplayed, sustain damage to their morale. "We can't worry about that kind of thing," he said.

"The only way we can compete with Argentina, or Holland for that matter, is by working harder than them. We won't do it by trying to match them in individual skills. One difference we would expect to see from the Norway game is more support in forward areas.

"Chris Iwelumo is very much in our plans. He gives us a target option we haven't had before and he can hold the ball and bring others in. Chris wasn't known as a natural scorer, but he's shown with Wolves this season that he can score goals all right – usually. Yes, he missed that great chance against Norway, but that was a one in a million thing and I'm sure it won't bother him."

Taken from the Scotsman

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