Messi, Argentina taking naturally to World Cup ‘favourites’ tag
The scintillating form of Lionel Messi and the steady hand of coach Alejandro Sabella have left many believing that Argentina are ready to end their long wait for a third World Cup crown.
The South American giants have regularly been favourites heading to recent World Cup finals, only to wilt under pressure once the action starts.
Successive squads bristling with world-class talent have rarely delivered, meaning that 28 long years have passed since a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina last lifted the trophy, in Mexico in 1986.
Yet there are several signs that this year it could be different.
In stark contrast to their turbulent qualifying campaign for the 2010 tournament under Maradona’s management, when they only just got one of the automatic places in South Africa, Argentina waltzed through the qualifying competition for Brazil.
They booked their place with two matches to spare, destroying Paraguay 5-2 away in Asuncion with a display of attacking football that will serve as a warning to Group F opponents Iran, African champions Nigeria and debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Key to Argentina’s path to the finals was the form of Barcelona star Messi, revelling in the captaincy role handed to him by Sabella after the wily former Estudiantes coach’s appointment in 2011.
Messi was Argentina’s top-scorer in qualifying, notching 10 goals in 14 games, suggesting that the 26-year-old maestro has finally nailed suggestions he is unable to reproduce his club form in the international arena.
Messi’s club form of late has not been great, and he has been hampered by injuries over the last 12 months, but his burgeoning form at international level is a testament to the faith that Sabella has placed in his captain.
Unlike Maradona – who unbalanced Argentina’s attack at the last World Cup with the inclusion of striker Carlos Tevez – Sabella has built his side entirely around Messi.
“We need to make him feel comfortable and think about what’s best for the team,” Sabella has said of Messi. “And what’s best for the team is, first and foremost, to make him feel comfortable.”
As a result, Tevez has not featured for his country since the 2011 Copa America, when Argentina bowed out in the quarter-finals to Uruguay.
However, La Albiceleste are anything but a one-man band.
Sabella’s squad contains several stars who would walk into most other starting XIs at the World Cup, such as Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain, Manchester City duo Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta, Barcelona defender-cum-midfielder Javier Mascherano and Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria.
Perhaps crucially, Argentina’s team also contains a core of players who won the Fifa Under-20 World Cup in 2005.
Messi, Zabaleta, Ageuro and midfielder Fernando Gago were among those who featured in that triumph, fostering a tightly knit team spirit that could prove the difference in Brazil.
“At the national team we have a solid group of friends,” said Messi recently. “Some of us have known each other since we were little kids. That’s something good.”
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Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM