Diego Maradona dies: How Argentina legend starred at Mexico 1986 – and was World Cup handball king

By Sports Desk November 25, 2020

Wherever you stand on football's GOAT debate, you can't deny the legacy of Diego Maradona.

Some would place him behind Lionel Messi as Argentina's greatest ever footballer, and short of Pele in the sport's pantheon of the mighty; others would say Maradona eclipses them all. It's a debate that has raged for decades, and one that is not likely to be settled for some time.

But nobody can argue that Maradona – who died on Wednesday at the age of 60 – produced a string of performances to rival anything the World Cup has ever witnessed in Mexico in 1986.

From the group stage to the final with West Germany, via the 'Goal of the Century' and a brazen moment of cheating, Maradona was so far above his contemporaries that the sheer idea of anyone else winning the Golden Ball was laughable.

Argentina beat South Korea, drew with Italy and defeated Bulgaria in their group, then saw off Uruguay, England and Belgium in the knockouts before a 3-2 final defeat of West Germany. 

As Opta data shows, Maradona was the beating heart of the Albiceleste's second World Cup triumph.

TAKE MY BREATH AWAY

Gary Lineker was the only player to score more goals (six) at the 1986 World Cup than Maradona (five). That's about the only category where he did not come out on top.

He added five assists to those five goals in his seven appearances, giving him the most goal involvements (10) of any player, ahead of the USSR's Igor Belanov (eight), and Lineker, Careca and Preben Elkjaer Larsen (six).

It stands to reason that Maradona also created more goalscoring chances (27) than any other player. Next on the list was France's Alain Giresse (24), then Klaus Allofs (23), Michel Platini (19) and Careca (17).

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Everyone, most famously West Germany, tried to man-mark Maradona out of the equation. None succeeded.

He completed 53 dribbles across the tournament, a tally that puts the rest of the competition to shame. The next highest number was recorded by USSR's Ivan Yaremchuk, who managed 16.

Of course, that kind of dazzling play will always attract a more prosaic approach from the opposition. Maradona was fouled 53 times, more than double the number of anyone else (Enzo Francescoli was next on 27 fouls won).

EDGE OF HEAVEN

Maradona's all-round impact on proceedings could only come from a player given freedom to drop deeper and seize the ball from lesser men. It's incredible, then, that he managed 44 touches in the opposition box, eight more than the next-highest on the list, Brazil's Careca. Lineker, winner of the Golden Boot, had 31 such touches.

Lineker and England have, of course, never forgotten Maradona's impact on their 2-1 quarter-final defeat in Mexico City. It was the scene of his greatest goal – a mazy, miraculous waltz through the heart of the opposition that ended with the bamboozling of goalkeeper Peter Shilton – and his crowning moment of infamy, when 'The Hand of God' punched Argentina into the lead.

Perhaps that wasn't such a one-off, though. Since 1966, no player has committed as many handballs at the World Cup as Maradona (seven) – and they're just the ones the referees spotted.

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    Even in these extraordinary times, Barcelona letting Luis Suarez go to Atletico Madrid is starting to look like the oddest decision of the season.

    Suarez's double over Eibar on Thursday secured a 2-1 victory for the league leaders, who are seven points clear at the top with a game in hand over champions Real Madrid in second.

    The Uruguay star, who has netted six in his past six league games for Atleti, is joint-top of the division's scoring charts alongside former team-mate Lionel Messi.

    It seems increasingly likely that Suarez, and certainly Atletico, will be at the top of the tree come the end of 2020-21.

    With the majority of sides having now played half of their matches, the Stats Perform AI team have run the numbers to simulate how the rest of the LaLiga campaign will play out – and it's good news for Diego Simeone.

     

    The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

    Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

    The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

    All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

    The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

     

    ATLETICO WIN AT A CANTER

    Atletico have been given a 75.1 per cent chance of winning LaLiga, according to the model.

    Simeone's men are predicted to finish on 86 points, nine clear of the rest of the field. They are given just a 17.8 per cent chance of coming second and dropping outside the top four is considered practically impossible.

    Barcelona and reigning champions Real Madrid are predicted to end with 77 points apiece, with just a 12.4 per cent chance each of pipping Atleti to the title. Madrid have a 41 per cent chance of finishing second, slightly above Barca's 39.4, having beaten Ronald Koeman's side 3-1 in the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou last October.

    Those two are, at least, very likely to end up in a Champions League place. They are expected to be joined there by Sevilla, who have a 47.8 per cent chance of finishing fourth on 65 points, just three above Villarreal and six clear of Real Sociedad. The remaining European spot is predicted to be a close battle between Granada, Getafe and Real Betis, with Diego Martinez's men odds on to snatch it.

    Valencia fans might be enduring a difficult time (again), and our sim has Los Che missing out on European football once more, if only by four points. That said, they still have a 3.6 per cent chance of a Europa League spot, which is better odds than those given to Supercopa de Espana winners Athletic Bilbao.

     

    WOE FOR HUESCA

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    Martin Odegaard will not be involved for Real Madrid against Deportivo Alaves amid speculation he could be set to join Arsenal. 

    Odegaard excelled out on loan at Real Sociedad in the 2019-20 season but has found first-team opportunities limited under Zinedine Zidane upon his return to the Spanish capital.  

    The Norway international has failed to score or assist in his nine appearances this season in all competitions and, having made just five starts, seems keen to seal a move away in January.  

    A return to the Basque club – where he managed seven goals and nine assists in 36 appearances – appeared to be on the cards, but Arsenal have now emerged as the clear favourites to sign the midfielder on loan.  

    Madrid assistant coach David Bettoni, who is to take charge of Madrid while Zidane isolates after testing positive for coronavirus, was asked about Odegaard's future during his media duties on Friday - and hinted there could be developments in the player's situation soon.

    "What happened with Martin is something that I don't know too well," Bettoni said.  

    "I'm the assistant coach and there are some things that I don't follow too closely, so I can't give the exact context.  

    "He is an important member of the squad and we'll see what happens with him in the coming days."  

    Odegaard is not part of Madrid's squad for Saturday's LaLiga trip to Alaves amid speculation he could be confirmed at Arsenal imminently. 

    The 22-year-old created 62 chances in LaLiga last term - a tally only beaten by four other players, one of which was predictably Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi.  

    His contributions in terms of goals and assists helped La Real finish in sixth place. They also reached the Copa del Rey final, though that fixture against rivals Athletic Bilbao is yet to take place due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

     

    The addition of Odegaard would add some welcome creativity to Mikel Arteta's squad, the Gunners having managed just 23 goals in 19 league games so far in what has been a topsy-turvy 2020-21 season.  

    Arsenal have created 158 scoring opportunities, of which 33 are considered big chances by Opta, well adrift of the league-high 53 recorded by Manchester City this term. The Gunners have managed 20 goals from 221 attempts (excluding penalties), slightly below their xG figure of 23. 

    Emile Smith Rowe has been a revelation of late, contributing three assists in open play, but no individual has created more chances for the Premier League club than full-back Kieran Tierney, his total of 22 putting him one above Bukayo Saka. 

    Having been busy so far in January trimming the squad, including the impending departure of Mesut Ozil, Arteta has admitted he hopes to make additions before the transfer window closes. 

    "We are in that process right now, we have done the first part more or less and we are focusing now on the second phase," he told the media on Thursday. 

    "Obviously this market and the context makes it difficult, but we are looking at options and we will see what we can do."

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