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In this June 11, 2013 file photo, Argentina’s Javier Mascherano, (center), jumps over Ecuador’s Christian Noboa during a 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Quito, Ecuador. (AP)
Argentina face Tevez dilemma Messi needs WC

BUENOS AIRES, April 10, (AP): Argentina will be heading to the World Cup with the spotlight split between Lionel Messi and a player who’s unlikely to make the cut. Carlos Tevez is just as famous as Messi in Argentina and even more popular among many fans. Formerly at Manchester United and Manchester City, the hard-working striker now plays in Italy for Juventus and is the team’s top scorer this season. Still, the 30-year-old Tevez is unlikely to be called when Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella picks his squad for Brazil. “Carlitos” hasn’t played for Argentina since a disappointing Copa America on home turf in 2011, where his missed penalty proved decisive as Argentina lost to Uruguay in a quarterfinal shootout. Sabella, who took charge of the national team after that tournament, hasn’t shown any interest in Tevez, despite a mounting chorus of fans who say the team needs his grit and fighting spirit to go all the way. “It’s only Sabella’s choice,” Tevez said earlier this year. “I don’t know if it’s a political choice. I think it all depends on Sabella.”

Having grown up in a poor, high-crime neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Tevez has the gritty character of a boxer who gets up before the count of 10. That has given him more passionate support among Argentines compared with the distant admiration that many feel for Messi, who moved to Barcelona as a teen. The problem is that for all his heart, Tevez faces tremendous competition. Besides Messi, Argentina has impressive attacking quality in Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi. It doesn’t help that Tevez has a history of getting into conflicts with coaches, including when he refused Roberto Mancini’s orders to enter as a substitute in a Champions League match with Manchester City in 2011.

“I’ve got confidence in the strikers that I have. They are all stars at the highest level,” Sabella said after Argentina’s 0-0 draw in a March 5 friendly against Romania, appearing to close the door on Tevez.
With or without him, Argentina are one of the big favorites to win the World Cup, along with host Brazil, defending champion Spain and Germany. If there’s one player the team can’t do without, however, it’s Messi. A series of injuries last year raised some concerns about his fitness, but he’s back in familiar goal-scoring form for Barcelona this year.

Despite Messi’s wealth of club titles and individual accolades, some say he needs to win the World Cup with Argentina to cement his place among all-time greats such as Diego Maradona and Pele. Argentina have been World Cup champions twice, but not since Maradona lifted the trophy in Mexico in 1986. With a range of players at or nearing the peak of their careers, this could be the year of the Albiceleste, currently third in FIFA’s world rankings. Though their defense is not as imposing as their attack, Sabella’s team should advance easily from the group stage, where they faces Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, Messi wants to make sure Argentina don’t get arrogant. “There’s been a lot of talk about how easy it’s going to be,” he told FIFA.com. “But it’s the World Cup and there are no easy teams. If they’re there it’s because they deserve to be — there are no straightforward matches at the World Cup.”

Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella’s challenge at the World Cup is as simple as it is daunting: Make the world’s best player play at his best. Lionel Messi has been brilliant for Barcelona, winning everything there is to win at club level. But he hasn’t looked so good for Argentina’s national team, failing to score a single goal in the last two major tournaments. But that was before Sabella. The 59-year-old Sabella seems to click better with Argentina’s superstar than national team coaches before him. Messi has performed consistently for Argentina since Sabella took charge in 2011, scoring 10 times in 14 matches during World Cup qualifying — more than quarter of his total tally since his Argentina debut in 2005.

Sabella immediately made Messi captain and placed him in the middle or on the right flank of a three-man attack with Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Now Sabella can only hope that his top player arrives free of the injuries that kept him sidelined during the end of 2013. “Messi is the best player in the world and any team will feel the difference without such a player,” Sabella said after a Messi-less Argentina drew 0-0 with Ecuador in a Nov. 15 friendly. “When Messi is not there, the other players feel that, but they also know they must be strong and try to make up (for his absence).”

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