Judgment days for Riquelme

DIEGO Latorre was the first of the new Maradonas, the squat man from Boca Juniors exciting the Argentinian nation in the late 1980s, in the way that his great hero had done a decade earlier. Latorre came from the same club, wore the same number and seemingly played the same game as Maradona; the people who eulogised the World Cup winner when he was still a kid in the slums of Villa Fiorito spoke of Latorre as his heir apparent.

Such was his promise that when he went to Fiorentina in a big-money deal in 1991, someone called Gabriel Batistuta went as his junior partner. Batigol became a legend, Latorre flopped. He moved on to Tenerife and to Salamanca, his career petering out in Mexico, and finally in Guatemala.

Many new Maradonas have appeared since. Ariel Ortega was supposed to be a sure thing at the 1998 World Cup, but he proved to be another false god. In 2001, the Sun featured a spread of stories: on one side was Harry Redknapp, then manager of West Ham United, pictured with his new recruit, Andres D'Alessandro, and on the other was Terry Venables, in charge of Middlesbrough, posing with the 1.5m, 17-year-old Carlos Marinelli. "I've found the new Maradona" ran the headline above 'Arry's 'ead. "Too late," declared the Venables blurb. "I already have him."

The search continues.

In the current Argentina squad, at some time or another as many as four players havebeen similarly branded. Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi are the most recent, with the daddy of them all being 27-year-old Juan Roman Riquelme. The Villarreal playmaker was also once of Boca Juniors, and like Maradona wore No.10 and won multiple awards before moving to Spain and experiencing an unhappy time at Barcelona. Both left the behemoth of the Nou Camp, but found glory in more modest places.

Something else unites them. They are very different in what they do on the field, but the expectation on them is pretty much the same - and Argentina looks to Riquelme now in the way that it looked to Maradona 20 years ago.

Riquelme is not their captain - he is an immensely quiet guy, and as such is a total opposite of Maradona - but he is their talisman and their leader in the sense that he can be their most dominant force. He is the one who sets their tempo, the one the others feed off and look to for inspiration.

Four years ago, Juan Sebastien Veron was supposed to do that job, but he turned out a dismal failure, and he was substituted in his first two games in Argentina's ignominious first-round exit. The question we have to ask now is whether Riquelme is more like Maradona or Veron. Is he the real deal or not?

They would throw stones at you in Villarreal for even asking. Before Riquelme came along, the club were habitually haunted by relegation, finishing 15th and 17th, respectively, in La Liga in 2002 and '03, then jumping to eighth in his first season, to an incredible third in '05, and seventh in the championship just finished.

Fans will tell you that Riquelme missed 10 games through injury in the past campaign, and that Villarreal lost eight of them, and that when he returned they started winning again with the Argentine providing the goals and assists and all-round precision that got them to the unimaginable high of a Champions League semi-final.

They forgave him the missed penalty against Arsenal. After all that he had given, it was the least that they could do.

Riquelme is, indeed, a rare talent. His range of passing is excellent, and his ability to play himself out of tight spots and to slide a killer ball through a half-gap is the reason why he is Argentina's main man. These past few years the tributes have flowed:

Arsene Wenger: "He's always able to slow the game down, and wait for a weak moment to kill you."

David Moyes: "If you stop him, you are taking out 50% of the Villarreal side."

Jurgen Klinsmann: "He has the ability to do whatever he wants on the ball." And Jose Pekerman: "Roman's got balls."

Pekerman, the Argentina manager, maintains that Riquelme is a throwback. "He incarnates the kind of player that has been lost in time," meaning that his vision and understanding of the way that the game works usually make up for his relative lack of pace.

"You could man-mark him," suggested Roberto Mancini, whose Inter side were outfoxed by him in the Champions League this season past. "But teams don't have man-markers today. That's because there are so few players who need man-marking. Apart from Riquelme. He was very difficult to stop. His movement is so good he was impossible to pin down."

Moyes got Phil Neville to shadow him when Everton played Villarreal in a Champions League qualifier. Neville was playing his first game for his new club after a move from Old Trafford, and he did well, but not well enough. "We tried man-marking him," said Moyes at the time, "but the positions he dropped into to pick up the ball meant he could hold you off."

His importance to Argentina was made clear in November when Argentina played England. For 84 minutes he dismantled the English, toying with Ledley King, who had the job of monitoring him. Argentina were leading 2-1 when Riquelme was replaced. Free of his menace, England scored twice, and won 3-2. Pekerman was panned.

Has he no flaws? Actually, yes. Wenger, for all the praise that he heaped on him, figured the man out in the two legs of the Champions League semi-final. At Highbury, he put Gilberto Silva on him, not as a direct marker, but as someone who stayed close enough to hit him aggressively on the ball. The speed of play in London did not suit Riquelme, and having the Brazilian snapping at his heels was not to his liking. Gilberto won the man of the match award, and the Argentinian became petulant and self-pitying before disappearing altogether from the contest.

The scale of his talent is not in question, but looking at him at Highbury in what was then the biggest club game of his life, you had to wonder if Riquelme required perfect laboratory conditions in which to blossom. Did he need a slow pace and overly-respectful opponents? Was this the reason why no giant club of the European game have come for him since he left Barcelona? Are they not convinced yet?

We know that on his terms he can be murderously good. Give him time to pick passes, as La Liga routinely does, and you are dead. If it is frenzied and the tackles are flying in, however, games can pass him by.

Gilberto managed to do a job on him, and as good as the Arsenal man is, the chances are that we won't be seeing much of him in Brazil's midfield in Germany. They reckon they have others who can do it better.

So when Riquelme comes up against the world's finest, we will know for sure if he is truly great or just another Veron or a Latorre. If he can impose himself on this World Cup the way that he has done on La Liga, then Maradona will finally have a legitimate rival for the title of the greatest living Argentinian.

World Cups are the only events that can bestow such greatness on footballers. For all that he has achieved, Riquelme's big test, the weeks that will define his legacy, are only now approaching.

ARGENTINA

STRENGTHS: The Argentina squad have one of the most impressive benches at the competition, with Lionel Messi and Pablo Aimar far from guaranteed a place in the side.

WEAKNESSES: The mental block against Brazil. Despite beating Brazil 3-1 in World Cup qualifying in Buenos Aires, the Argentines still struggle to get one over on their South American rivals. They were hammered 4-1 in last summer's Confederations Cup final by Brazil but what hurt more was the previous year's Copa America final, when a reserve Brazil team beat a full-strength Argentina side on penalties. Argentina also find themselves in the Group of Death, although they should have learned their lessons from their disastrous 2002 campaign.

KEY PLAYER: Juan Roman Riquelme. The midfield playmaker inspired Villarreal to the Champions League semi-finals and starred when Argentina beat Brazil 3-1 in qualifying.

COACH: Jose Pekerman was unknown when appointed Argentina's youth team coach in 1994 but he won three world titles with players he now oversees in the senior team.

ONE TO WATCH: Lionel Messi is still only 18 and only broke into the Barcelona side this season. After spending the last three months on the sidelines, he will be fully fit once the tournament starts. Likely to begin on the bench and become an important figure as the competition goes on.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH AND WHY: Top of the group, as momentum builds following the first game against Ivory Coast.

PROBABLE LINE-UP: (4-4-2) Abbondanzieri; Burdisso, Ayala, Heinze, Scaloni; Cambiasso, Mascherano, Riquelme, Sorin; Crespo, Tevez