Veron proves to be Argentina's pass master
Published 22:30 23/06/10 By Simon Bird
The trademark polished bald head bobbed around the pitch, the old legs spraying pass after pass.
At 35, the body may be even slower, but Juan Sebastian Veron has emerged as a pivotal figure in Diego Maradona's World Cup bid.
The startling statistic following Argentina's win over Greece was that Veron made 153 passes, completing 133, the highest by any player in one game since records began in 1966.
In fact the entire Greece team managed only one more successful pass collectively.
While Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguera grab the eye with their flashes of brilliance, Veron is the unlikely figure anchoring Maradona's attacking stars. His calm, thoughtful passing helped the Argentines to an astonishing 82 per cent of possession in their final group B match.
So years after he was written off and drummed out of English football for being too slow, too lazy and past it, it appears the midfielder is having a renaissance.
He was pushed out of Manchester United after his £28million transfer fell flat after two disappointing years, with Sir Alex Ferguson growing tired of defending his performances. It was one of his worst ever pieces of transfer business. Veron then failed to light up Chelsea and after two years at Stamford Bridge was repeatedly loaned out to Inter despite costing £15m.
Veron has been traded for a combined total of £77m - only Nicolas Anelka (£85m) and Cristiano Ronaldo (£93m) have cost more.
But he has spent the last three seasons finding his feet again at Argentine club Estudiantes de La Plata, where he began his career 16 years ago. Many will have thought he was finished when he left Jose Mourinho's Inter and returned to the relative anonymity of his spiritual home.
But he led his club to the Copa Libertadores title last year, wants to be their President and has become a hero for donating cash to update their training ground and cajoling local politicians into getting the stadium extended.
After the Greece match Veron spoke of finishing his playing career at the very top, by winning the World Cup. He said: "Obviously we are motivated by these dreams and ambitions of winning the tournament but we know that this is a long process and if we do not have a cold head we could slip up at any moment.
"The teams knows perfectly well where we are going. And most importantly, we do not think we are better than we are.
"You cannot help but play good teams from this point on, and Mexico are one of those very good teams. But we have strengthened our unity with the way we have qualified. We have to continue with the same harmony."
It is not only his influence on the pitch that Maradona admires enough to start him in two group games so far, even if he has a weakness when hassled by a tenacious opponent and has carried a calf strain that kept him out of the South Korea match.
Veron is Maradona's senior pro on the pitch. He's the first summoned to the touchline to get instructions from the coach. And he is room-mate to the biggest star of the tournament so far, Messi.
Messi says Veron's counselling has been key to keeping his World Cup adventure in perspective and he's certainly sleeping well. Veron joked: "He's a good room mate, a small problem is that he snores a lot, but that can be resolved with a pillow."
A World Cup win seemed an unlikely dream given his time at Old Trafford. His first season was a struggle and the pace of the Premier League caught him out. In his second season he did well in the Champions League, scoring four times, but was injured towards the end of the campaign.
He was blamed by Argentina fans for their dismal show in the 2002 World Cup when he was skipper, and he was left out of the squad in 2006 by boss Jose Pekerman. Initially Maradona said he didn't figure in his plans, but in his first competitive game in charge Veron played as a sub in a 4-0 win over Venezuela in March last year, and has not looked back.
He appears to be Maradona's choice to sit with Javier Mascherano in front of Argentina's vulnerable defence, while the front four players have fun.
Striker Diego Milito says with three wins Argentina's camp is a happy one. The trick now is for old heads like Veron to keep the pressure down ahead of a tough last 16 clash with Mexico.
Milito said: "It does not add pressure that we have started the tournament so well and qualified in this way. It is a pleasure. This is what we wanted to do when we came here, to win our first three games. That was our target. It puts us in a good position for the rest of the tournament.
"It is a great group of players. We all get on well together. We have an end and an objective that we all want to achieve together."