Group F Profile: Messi's time to shine in backyard of rivals Brazil

TIME TO SHINE: Lionel Messi

TIME TO SHINE: Lionel Messi

First published in World Cup News & Match Reports
Last updated

IN Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, Argentina have a threepronged attack more than capable of winning the World Cup in the backyard of their arch-rivals, Brazil Arguably the biggest question mark hanging over Alejandro Sabella’s squad is whether they can eradicate the individual mistakes which could prevent them from tasting glory for the first time since defeating West Germany in 1986.

If Ezequiel Garay, after a brilliant season with Benfica, can hold the rest of the defence together behind the effective Javier Mascherano then this could be Argentina’s year again.

Clearly Argentina have the talent, but another potential problem facing them is having to cope with a crowd largely made up of angry Brazilians every time they play.

They start against Bosnia- Herzegovina in Rio de Janeiro before heading to Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre to face Iran and Nigeria respectively.

Carlos Bilardo, the 1986 winning boss who also led his country to the final in Italia ‘90, said: “In Brazil we’ll have to play against 40,000; in Italy we were lucky to play in Naples, but the rest were terrible. In Brazil it is going to be different. For us it is the worst country to play in. Brazil is football and the rivalry will be strong.”

Brazil, while retaining an element of flair ahead of the finals, have become more of a team in recent years rather than a team of individuals.

Argentina, however, remain very much the latter, with the performances of Messi, Aguero and Higuain likely to be key to their success in the tournament.

All three could easily end up claiming the Golden Boot and an indication of the quality at Sabella’s disposal is that he could afford to ignore Carlos Tevez.

The Juventus striker, despite his excellent form in Italy, was overlooked to accommodate the above as well as Paris St Germain’s Ezequiel Lavezzi, who is only likely to start on the bench when the action begins on June 15.

A mistake Argentina coaches have made in the past is to merely use the exceptionally gifted Messi as another member of the team.

Since Sabella took over in August 2011, however, he has made the Barcelona man the centre-piece, the main man, like a certain Diego Maradona was back in ‘86.

That will present problems if Messi suffers injury but, provided he is available for the tournament, giving him licence to roam behind either Higuain or Lavezzi should bring its rewards.

That is why the fitness of Fernando Gago is such an important part of the Sabella system. The passing statistics indicate that Gago completes more passes to Messi than any other player in the Argentina team.

But Gago has concerns surrounding the left knee problem he suffered in April playing for Boca Juniors.

Sabella has given him every opportunity to prove his fitness ahead of the finals, knowing the importance of his understanding with Messi when he plays alongside Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria in the middle.

For Argentina to get beyond the quarter-finals for the first time since 1990, all of the above need to deliver – and Messi could have the same elusive World Cup trophy to cherish that Maradona, also wearing the famous light blue and white striped No 10, got to hold 28 years ago.

IMAGINING Argentina finishing anywhere other than top of Group F is hard. It appears a certainty, with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria battling away beneath them for the second qualifying spot.

All three have their strengths and weaknesses and even Iran, who are 9-2 just to reach the second stage, will think they have a chance under the guidance of former Manchester United No 2 Carlos Queiroz.

Queiroz has instilled resilience and a defensive quality to the way the Iranians play, although trying to keep Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko or even Peter Odemwingie quiet could be a challenge too far for defenders like of Jalal Hosseini or Pejman Montazeri.

Both Bosnia and Nigeria, however, must be fancying their chances and the winners when they meet in Cuiaba on June 21 could be the deciding factor when it comes to qualification.

Wearing their trademark green will be Nigeria, the reigning African champions.

Such a tag has not convinced even the most optimistic of fans back in their homeland that are a team to be watched in Brazil.

Despite winning the Africa Cup of Nations last year they struggled to impress and they might as well have not turned up to the Confederations Cup in Rio de Janeiro 12 months ago, which has raised question marks over their chances of progressing.

Shola Ameobi, who has left Newcastle after turning down a new contract, will be aiming to help Nigeria prove a few people wrong, but he will have to force his way in ahead of Emmanuel Emenike and Odemwingie just to grace the World Cup stage.

When they come up against the Dragons of Bosnia, however, they will be up against a group of players intent on delivering for a nation celebrating a first appearance at a major finals.

While the romantics rightly take heart from the story of a country ravaged by war rising from its knees to claim a place at the World Cup with little financial backing, it is worth pointing out that there is more than enough talent among the squad to cause an upset too.

The Northern Echo:

Dzeko, pictured above, has proven himself in the Premier League as a goal-getter and Asmir Begovic has become one of the best shot-stoppers around with Stoke City.

Roma’s Miralem Pjanic is Bosnia’s most creative player, while many of the squad play in Europe’s top leagues. Bosnia tend to be direct, full of attacking verve and with little respect for the defensive side of the game.

That could prove to be to their downfall in a group including Argentina, but it could quite easily see them emerge from a group also including Iran and Nigeria.

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