Argentina booked a last-16 date with Mexico as their two Martins – Demichelis and Palermo – ended Greece’s faint hopes of qualification by wrapping up a 2-0 victory in Polokwane. Greece had kept the South Americans at bay until the 77th minute but they could do little to prevent Diego Maradona’s side from securing top spot in Group B with an impressive win at the Peter Mokoba stadium.
Otto Rehhagel’s side simply needed to better the result of Korea Republic to claim a place in the last 16, and with Maradona rotating his starting 11, as expected, with no fewer than seven changes from the side that swept aside Korea Republic, the Greeks could must have felt more confident of achieving their aim.
However, there was no doubting Greece had a Herculean task on their hands, and they were virtual by-standers in the opening minutes as Argentina stroked the ball around confidently, guided by the returning Juan Veron. Lionel Messi, lively from the start, demonstrated his threat as early as the tenth minute, riding the challenges of Konstantinos Kastouranis and Alexandros Tziolis, before eventually being stopped in his tracks by the outstretched leg of Sokratis Papastathoppoulos.
Greece were defending in numbers in a bid to thwart their opponents, and were relying on long balls into Georgios Samaras in any bid to switch defence into attack. However, if Rehhagel’s side were slowly finding their feet – only the outstretched leg of Martin Demechelis brought an end to Samaras’s promising charge into the box 12 minutes in – Maradona’s side were still well in command.
And when the southern Europeans’ sporadic attacks broke down, the action quickly switched back to the other end, where Alexandro Tzvorvas was unquestionably the busiest man of the night. Sergio Aguero smashed in a left-footed drive which he athletically palmed away, and the Greece goalkeeper had to be equally alert moments later, when the power of the long-range drive from Veron was only matched by the quality of Tzvorvas’s tip-over.
If Greece were going to claw their way back into this game it was going to be through Samaras. Just two minutes into the second period, the Celtic forward was picked out with another long ball but, despite wriggling free of his markers, he could only flash his shot wide. However, the momentum remained with Argentina, who needed just a draw to see them into the last 16. Diego Milito might have headed them into a lead, but the striker failed to connect with Clemente Rodriguez’s dangerous-looking cross and, shortly after, Rodriquez had a go himself from long range but was unable to find the target.
Messi and Mario Bolatti were both thwarted by Tzvorvas as the decibel level rose in the Peter Mokaba stadium. And the noise levels went through the roof in the 77th minute when Demichelis’s goalbound header from an Angel Di Maria corner rebounded off Milito and back into the path of the Argentina defender, who gratefully smashed home a left-footed shot to give Maradona’s side the lead they had long threatened.
Messi, Argentina’s captain for the night, was denied by the post and then Tzvorvas in the dying minutes, but Greece could do nothing to stop Martin Palermo from side-footing home Argentina’s second a minute from time after Messi had again been thwarted.