Soccer

A nice problem for Argentina: Crespo or Batistuta?

As Argentina's pivotal World Cup match against Sweden looms, the eyes of the soccer world are once again fixed squarely upon Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa.

Bielsa is unquestionably the man in the hot seat, as he is once against forced to make a difficult decision that is almost certain to be second-guess one way or the other: whether to select Hernan Crespo or Gabriel Batistuta as his starting striker.

Bielsa has two of the most lethal strikers in the world at his disposal. Batistuta's 55 goals in 75 games with the national team makes him Argentina's top goal scorer of all-time. Equally impressive is Crespo's performance for his country, netting 17 goals in 33 games.

Between the two of them, they have scored more than 500 goals during their illustrious careers for both club and country, and they stack up as two of the great scoring threats. Too bad only one of them will be on the field at one time.

Obviously, this begs the question: why not start the both of them? The answer lies in Bielsa's tactical game plan.

Bielsa is devoted to a 3-3-1-3 formation with one outright striker and two wingers, making it impossible to start both Crespo and Batistuta. With the two winger positions assumed by any combination of Killy Gonzalez, Claudio Lopez and Ariel Ortega, it becomes a matter of picking between Batistuta and Crespo for the striker position.

It's either-or, not both.

Bielsa believes Crespo and Batistuta, both of them classic goal poachers, are too similar in style. Few expect him to bend to overwhelming public and media pressure to play them together.

"I haven't ruled it out, but it is difficult to find a satisfactory end to the controversy," he said in a recent interview. "There is no room for two penalty-area players. The whole system would have to be changed."

So whom will Bielsa decide to start? A strong case can be made for both candidates.

There's no doubting that of the two, Crespo is currently the "in-form" striker. The 26-year old potted 13 goals for Italian club Lazio this season and is in perfect physical condition. With Batistuta battling through a series of nagging injuries the past year, Crespo was the automatic choice for Bielsa during qualifying for the World Cup.

Add to this Batistuta's meagre goal tally this season (a mere six goals playing for Italian club AS Roma compared to 20 he scored last year), and it would appear the natural choice would be Crespo.

But it's not quite that clear-cut, especially not after the first two games of the World Cup, which has seen Argentina split a pair of decisions, beating Nigeria 1-0 and losing to its bitter rival, England, 1-0.

While Crespo may have been in better form in the run-up to the World Cup, Batistuta, 33, has the superior track record playing for Argentina. His 56 goals in 75 games - which works out to an amazing strike record of 1 goal every 1.34 game - is, to say the least, prolific. Whenever his country has called upon him, Batistuta has answered.

In 1998 in France, it was Batistuta who started five games and scored five goals for his country. Crespo, meanwhile, was slightly out of shape and relegated to a spectator on the bench. When inserted into the memorable second round game against England, he missed from the penalty spot, letting down his country when it needed him most.

Time and time again, "Batigol," as Batistuta is known to his fans, has proven that he deserves a spot in the starting eleven. This will be his last World Cup, giving him the opportunity to vindicate himself for his poor form this past season in Italy.

Batistuta has also scored Argentina's lone goal of the World Cup to this point.

That wasn't enough to convince Bielsa, though, and the coach substituted Crespo for Batistuta in the second half of the loss to England.

To worsen Bielsa's conundrum, neither player was very impressive in the England game, although Pablo Aimar, another second-half substitution was. But if he's inserted into the line-up as an attacking midfielder, that would dislodge Argentine captain Juan Sebastian Veron from his starting position.

Bielsa has two distinct options: he can either go with Crespo, who's clearly the better of the two when considering recent form; or he can go with the veteran Batistuta, Argentina's greatest goal scorer.

Having two world-class strikers to choose from is an extraordinarily nice problem to be sure, but it's a problem nonetheless, especially when neither player seems to have a hot hand at the moment. With the colossal weight of expectations from a football-mad country like Argentina resting squarely on his shoulders, Bielsa has an unenviable decision to make, especially if it means the difference between an early exit from the tournament and World Cup glory.