WORLD CUP: Palacio, Cruz novelties in Argentina

Buenos Aires, May 16:

Striker Rodrigo Palacio and midfielder Julio Cruz were two surpassing choices by coach Nestor Pekerman to Argentina’s youthful World Cup roster, heavy on players he led to three under-20 world championships. Palacio, 24, is rated highly for his dribbling skill in the attacking third of the field while Cruz led Inter Milan with 17 goals this season, two more than Brazil’s Adriano.

“This is a balanced, highly qualified team,” Pekerman said. “It’s the best we could assemble.” Only four players return from the 2002 World Cup side that was eliminated in the first round in Japan and South Korea.

“This team represents new blood to a degree seldom seen,” Pekerman said. Palacio and keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri, both with Boca Juniors, plus keeper Oscar Ustari of Independiente are the only players who play for clubs in Argentina that were included in the final 23-man roster.

“Palacio will adapt very well to the team,” Pekerman said. “Too bad he was unable to join the squad for the last friendly game, but we’ve been observing him for a long time. He will add quality to the offence.”

In another surprise, Pekerman dropped midfielder Martin Demichelis, of Bayern Munich, whom many fans and reporters thought was beyond question. Also dropped were 10-year veteran Javier Zanetti (Inter Milan), Walter Samuel (Real Madrid) and Juan Sebastian Veron (Inter Milan).

“I don’t want to play or live anymore,” a devastated Demichelis told Argentine sports channel TyC. “A long time ago I stopped living to devote myself to soccer. Now I don’t feel like doing anything, or travelling anywhere.” Zanetti, who played the last two World Cups, told Radio del Plata he didn’t understand why he was dropped. “Nobody told me what I did wrong to be left out. I’m at peace because I did everything in my power to be there and I always answered the call of the national team when they needed me,” he said.

The four that return from the 2002 side are defenders Roberto Ayala (Valencia) and Juan Pablo Sorin (Villarreal), midfielder Pablo Aimar (Valencia) and forward Hernan Crespo (Chelsea). To replace Demichelis, Pekerman picked Cruz, who will be playing in his first World Cup. Thirteen of the 23 have won the under-20 world championship, including Aimar, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Saviola, Nicolas Burdisso, Sorin, forward Lionel Messi and Ustari.

Uncapped Ustari was a surprise pick over River Plate’s German Lux, a gold medallist at the Athens Olympics who did not allow a single goal and who also played at the 2005 Confederations Cup, where Argentina lost the final to Brazil. This is the first time that River did not supply one player to the World Cup team. Sorin, Crespo, Saviola and Aimar are former River players. On May 25, the team will travel to Italy for a friendly game with Angola five days later.

Argentina plays the first round in Group C with Ivory Coast, Serbia and Montenegro and Netherlands.

SQUAD: Goalkeepers — Roberto Abbondanzieri, Leonardo Franco, Oscar Ustari; Defenders — Fabricio Coloccini, Roberto Ayala, Gabriel Heinze, Juan Pablo Sorin, Lionel Scaloni, Gabriel Milito, Nicolas Burdisso, Leandro Cufre; Midfielders — Maximiliano Rodriguez, Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme, Julio Cruz, Luis Gonzalez, Pablo Aimar; Forwards — Carlos Tevez, Hernan Crespo, Lionel Messi, Rodrigo Palacio, Javier Saviola.