Splitting a Pair

  • Share
  • Read Later
DANIEL GARCIA/AFP

Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta slides past the goalkeeper to score against the local Kashima Antlers in Japan

(2 of 2)

Batistuta, dubbed "Batigol" by his fans, is the most successful striker of his generation, having achieved mythic status at Italian club Fiorentina in the 1990s before moving to AS Roma two seasons ago. In the modern game, a deadly forward is one who scores once every three games. Batistuta's average for Argentina is better than two in three. With his shoulder-length blond hair and soulful eyes, he looks a likely lead in Jesus Christ Superstar, but he has the instincts of a cold-blooded killer. Bielsa notes that Batistuta is "more comfortable in the last third of the pitch" than his rival, and that's an understatement. There is no cooler head in a goalmouth melee than the Roma star. Batigol was the first-choice national team striker until he was injured during the qualification campaign, and he spent much of the European season on Roma's bench or sick list. But that means his legs are fresher than most, and this may be enough to compensate for the fact that, at 33, he may be a couple of years too old to be the prince of strikers.

What is age, anyway? Mariano Dayan, editor of the Argentine sports paper Olé, says Batistuta's sharpshooting skills are innate. "He has the nose, the instinct. He was born with it and will die with it." And just to show the world that the years haven't sated his appetite, Batistuta bagged four goals in the second half of a warm-up game against J-League champions Kashima Antlers. O.K., so Kashima's defense isn't exactly world-class but it was good enough to neutralize, for the entire first half, a certain Hernan Crespo.

But give the kid a break: it was just a warm-up. In the matches that mattered, Crespo delivered the goods, scoring nine times during Argentina's qualifying march. Overall, he has a strike rate of one goal every other game—better even than English idol Michael Owen. Where Batistuta is a smooth assassin, Crespo is a wily pickpocket, deceiving defenders and slipping unnoticed into goal-scoring positions. At 26, he is at the peak of his powers, and although he hasn't scored in recent friendlies, he has looked sharp.

The two men are almost identical in size. But in playing style, they have one crucial difference. Crespo's edge over Batistuta is his ability to initiate attacks, not just finish them off. He is given to "dropping back to start movements from down the middle or on the flanks," Bielsa says. Still, this is an underrated quality, perhaps because the Argentine team is already richly endowed with playmakers—none more creative than the midfield genius Juan Sebastian Veron. Bielsa, many commentators suggest, doesn't need an extra goalmaker; he needs a forward who concentrates on the business of slamming the ball into the back of the net. Ergo, he needs Batistuta.

Some experts wonder why the coach doesn't simply play them both. Other teams have profited from fielding two forwards with similar playing styles—Romario and Bebeto in Brazil's Cup-winning 1994 side, for instance. Bielsa has never really tried the combination, arguing that this would oblige him to play one of the two men out of position, which might mean that he would get less than 100% from that man. "It's not ideal for Argentina to play them together," he insists. For most defenders, the prospect of 100% of Batigol and 50% of Crespo (as he's the one who would have to drop back) would be frightening enough, but Bielsa won't hear of it.

And who would argue with a successful coach? Under Bielsa, Argentina is unbeaten in its last 14 games. By broad consensus, the 24 players assembled at the J-Village make up the strongest squad the country has ever sent to the World Cup—including the champion sides of 1978 and 1986. With either of the two superstrikers wreaking havoc, the team stands apart as the thinking fan's favorite to win it all. Batistuta or Crespo? In the end, Bielsa might just as well have tossed a coin.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next