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Dream end to nightmare year

MONTEVIDEO, October 15 – Diego Maradona suffered countless depressing lows amongst barely-remembered highs on Argentina's rollercoaster ride to the World Cup finals.MARADONAJust two weeks short of his first anniversary as coach of the two-time world champions, Maradona was indebted to virtually unknown midfielder Mario Bolatti for the scrambled winner against Uruguay which put his team into the finals.

They made it, but only just.

Maradona, who skippered his country to World Cup glory in 1986, was a shock choice to replace Alfio Bastile as coach on October 28 last year, two days before his 48th birthday.

With no serious coaching experience, the decision was widely ridiculed and dismissed as another dangerous flirtation with a legend whose lustre, outside of Argentina, had faded many years earlier.

But in his first outings in charge, Maradona confounded his critics.

A team which had won just one of its seven previous matches beat Scotland 1-0 in Maradona’s first game, saw off France 2-0 and Venezuela 4-0.

"God exists" was sporting daily Ole’s headline.

But the feelgood factor didn’t last long.

Four days later, at La Paz’s unforgiving 3,500m altitude, Argentina were humiliated 6-1 by Bolivia, one of two-time world champions’ heaviest defeats in history.

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The voices of doubt became even louder when three defeats – 2-0 against Ecuador, 3-1 against Brazil and 1-0 to Paraguay – seriously compromised the team’s chances of making the World Cup finals.

But a last-minute winner on Saturday against Peru and Bolatti’s strike six minutes from time here on Wednesday allowed Argentina to claim the region’s fourth and last qualifying place.

Maradona has come under fire for his tactics, his defensive misunderstandings, his failure to get the best out of Lionel Messi and his bizarre use of 78 players.

As the chances of Argentina missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970 threatened to become reality, Maradona looked as if he was running out of allies as well as time.

His relationship with team manager Carlos Bilardo, his coach at the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, cooled.

"After the qualifying, I will speak with Julio (Grondona, the president of the Argentine football federation). I will see if I am to continue and this will be on my terms," said Maradona before Saturday’s match with Peru.

"When Julio offered me the job, I was the happiest man in the world. But since then, there are things that have not pleased me."

Veteran striker Martin Palermo, recalled after 10 years in the international wilderness, scored the last-minute goal to secure victory over Peru on Saturday.

Overcome with relief as much as joy, Maradona dived onto the rain-soaked pitch in a futile attempt to encourage his bulky figure to gracefully glide across the surface.

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Against Uruguay it was Bolatti, making only his third appearance, who saved his famous boss.

There was no similar celebration this time by Maradona who knows only too well that there is plenty of hard work ahead if his team is not to sink without trace in South Africa in June and July next year.

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