Maradona forced to cope with emotion of Aguero absence

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DIEGO Maradona will have known his first days as Argentina manager were not likely to prove easy ones, and so it proved yesterday when one of his key figures for tonight's friendly with Scotland was forced to pull out. That Atletico Madrid striker Sergio Aguero's reasons for doing so were linked to the health of his pregnant fiancée, Maradona's youngest daughter Giannina, emphasised again how the legend's private and public worlds seem fated always to collide.

In the court of Diego Maradona, off-field dramas are an inevitable part of the package, though mercifully there came news from his former wife, Claudia, that the illness is not serious. Giannina has not lost the baby. But Maradona must have been partly distracted last night as he put those remaining players through their paces at a private training session inside Celtic Park.

He had already handled his first official press conference as Argentina manager with considerable aplomb, making firmer the bond between him and Scotland by laughing off former England skipper Terry Butcher's complaints about his behaviour.

These had been stored-up in the mind of the assistant Scotland manager since Maradona fisted Argentina's first goal into the net in the 2-1 win over England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup. That Maradona was answering questions about the incident in his role as Argentina coach 22 years later, and in a Glasgow hotel, was hard to take in, but he took it all in his stride.

Among his more notable claims was the admission that he needed the Argentina post as much as the team needed him. For someone whose recent life has been blighted by substance abuse, this quest for salvation is understandable. "I needed the Argentina side, and the Argentina side needed guidance," he pointed out.

It is with a salute to the crazily-paved path of football that we must accept the image of Diego Maradona settling for the evening with DVD recordings of Scotland's last three matches. Once a night with the Argentina legend might have involved more illicit behaviour, but this is the reborn Maradona, one who has been casting an eye over Scotland's strengths and weaknesses in his new role as coach of Argentina.

It might unnerve Chris Iwelumo to think of one of the world's greatest-ever players viewing one of the worst-ever misses. Maradona's response to the Wolves striker's open-goal gaffe against Norway last month might have been interesting, although even he has known bleak moments in football. The last years of his playing career were played out in often unsatisfying circumstances, in Seville and then back home in Argentina. Maradona is also alert to the notion of redemption, for he has been handed a surprise chance by the Argentina FA. It is, some have claimed, a foolhardly move, but Maradona handled his first official press conference as team coach adeptly yesterday, and revealed an appetite for the job.

"Yes, I have seen lots of DVDs of the Scottish side," he said when asked about his preparations for tonight's friendly at Hampden. "I watched them against Macedonia, Iceland and Norway. I know how my own team will play." He had not yet told the players his starting XI, but Aguero's withdrawal has impacted on his plans.

It is, he hopes, the beginning of a new era, one where he aims to bring joy as well as success to the international team. He stressed that a semi-final berth at the World Cup, something Argentina have not achieved since 1990, was not enough. "The objective is to be first," said Maradona.

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