ANALYSIS: Maradona again before the challenge of rising from ashes

Diego MaradonaBuenos AiresĀ  - Diego Maradona is an expert in extremes, and he got another dose of them as Argentina coach in recent days, with glory in Saturday's thrashing over Venezuela and disaster in Wednesday's historic and humiliating 6-1 loss to Bolivia.

The current situation raised uncomfortable questions as to national football legend Maradona's ability to lead Argentina in the South American qualifiers towards the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

And yet Maradona - who has been on the verge of death several times due to serious drug-related health problems - knows about collapses and resurrections. Fans and commentators alike continued to believe in his future potential, even if his star-studded squad appeared to erase Wednesday in La Paz what they had written in golden letters four days earlier in Buenos Aires.

"Historic defeat" and "painful thrashing" were among the headlines Thursday, as was the observation that "Diego's team fell down from a height of 4,000 metres."

Both the coach and his men chose silence when they returned to Argentina. La Paz's elevation 3,600 metres above sea level - always a challenge for visiting teams - now seem like little more than circumstantial, as observers continued to seek the real causes of the bitter 6-1 defeat to the lowly Bolivia.

"We have to start again," a distraught, yet serene Maradona said after the game. "Every Bolivian goal was a knife to my heart."

As Maradona himself admitted without mentioning specific names, Bolivia played very well, but it was Argentina that was really surprising. Stars like Lionel Messi, for many the best player in the world at the moment; Carlos Tevez; Sergio Aguero and Javier Mascherano appeared to be missing Wednesday, even though they were indeed on the pitch.

Fans mostly blamed the defeat on Maradona, according to an online poll by the daily La Nacion. Some 52 per cent of those who answered said the coach held most of the responsibility for the crash, while 21 per cent blamed the players, and barely 18 per cent thought the high altitude was the problem.

"Bolivia was better than us and gave us a thrashing that would have seemed impossible if we had thought about it before the game," Maradona admitted.

He immediately looked to the future and demanded another match to make up for the evident flaws. However, he will have to wait until June, when Argentina host Colombia in Buenos Aires.

There are six rounds of World Cup qualifiers left for the region, and Argentina are currently fourth in the table with 19 points in 12 games. They cannot take for granted that they will be playing in South Africa 2010, and their goal difference also took a sharp blow this week.

In South America's World Cup qualifiers, each of the 10 sides plays each of the other nine teams at home and away. The top four win a place in the event. The fifth-placed team has a chance to advance through a play-off against a team from the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

As things stand now, Paraguay tops the table with 24, followed by Brazil on 21 and Chile on 20. Argentina is fourth on 19, just two points ahead of fifth-placed Uruguay.

Coming games are a challenge. In June there is Colombia, who once beat Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires. And there is another high- altitude game, against Ecuador in Quito.

In September, Argentina face arch-rival Brazil in Buenos Aires, and a trip to Asuncion to play the qualifiers' lone leader Paraguay. In October, Maradona's men are set to host Peru, and to visit Uruguay.

Under Maradona, Argentina had beaten Scotland and France in friendlies before crushing Venezuela 4-0 and crashing to Bolivia 6-1, in a result that just seemed too shocking to allow comparisons.

"This game, however tragic it may have been, does not define a cycle, as others have done in crucial moments. But it does expose the team and forces it to do better. Learning historic and unimagined lessons, and this is one of them, cannot be put off and is essential," La Nacion warned. (dpa)