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Argentina ready to end wait for 3rd WC title Messi set to lead

BUENOS AIRES, May 17, (AFP): 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-Hercegovina.
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.”
Messi has made his name with Barcelona, who spotted him as an 11-year-old and agreed to pay the $900 a month for his growth hormone treatment if he moved to Spain.
The rest is history. Messi has grown into greatness and says he is ready to finish his career at Barcelona.
But while nobody disputes the global drawing power of the Champions League, a title on the world stage is the one achievement that continues to separate Messi from the game’s all-time greats such as Diego Maradona and Pele.
This will be Messi’s third World Cup. In 2006 as a raw 18-year-old he scored his only goal in the competition so far, but was not given much chance to shine by Argentina coach Jose Pekerman. He did not even make it off the bench as Argentina succumbed to hosts Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Four years later in South Africa, at the same stage and against the same opponents, the circumstances were far different.
Messi arrived at the tournament with a reputation and showed it too as, without finding the net, he led an Argentine side under Maradona’s tutelage through the early stages in fine style.
However, Germany counter-attacked to perfection in the last eight to hammer Maradona’s unbalanced side overladen with offensive talent 4-0 in Cape Town.
This time, despite Argentina’s undoubted strength in attack, coach Alejandro Sabella appears to have found a semblance of equilibrium as they emerged top of an extremely strong South American qualification process.
The key, though, will still be whether Messi can bring his best form to the biggest stage and dispel any doubts that he is one of the greatest players of all time.
Comparisons with Maradona’s crowning glory in leading Argentina to their second World Cup in 1986 are hard to ignore. Maradona was 25, in the prime of his career at the top of the European game with Napoli.
Messi will turn 27 during the tournament and given his side’s relatively soft draw through the early stages, will surely never get a better opportunity to end his country’s 28-year wait for a third world title.
“Messi doesn’t need to win a World Cup to be the best footballer in the world,” Maradona claimed in a recent interview with Argentine newspaper La Nacion.
 

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