Much is expected of the current collection of football celestial bodies that comprises Maradona's Argentina World Cup squad set to bow into action against Nigeria on June 6 in South Africa. So whats new.
While many consider it a blessing to have the world's best player at your disposal, Lionel Messi, the FIFA World Player of the year 2008/2009, and Europe's leading goal scorer in the just concluded 2009/2010 season, with 47 goals in all competitions. Maradona is indeed the envy of many a coach heading to the African continent.
To add to the woes of the world's best ever number 10, according to some, is the bounty of riches that abounds for Argentina. He has the headache of partnering the world's best player with the likes of La Liga's second highest goal scorer, Gonzalo Higuain, the Barclay's Premiere league fourth best goal getter Carlos Tevez and Serie A hitman, Diego Milito, with 30 goals in all competitions this season. Oh no, oh what will he do!
On paper the Argentines look formidable and should be sure contenders to lift the trophy. So why then did they struggle so much to qualify for the world's greatest sport extravaganza?
Despite having a plethora of quality players at every position, the two time world cup champions barely made it to the party in South Africa. Yes, Messi was on the field in those matches in which they lost 3-1 at home to arch rivals Brazil, and 6-1, to neighbors, Bolivia. So what! some may exclaim.
Many have argued or rationalized rather, that the high altitude was "the" major factor in the one sided scoreline, and they would be right, in part at least. But the result speaks to perhaps the greatest hindrance to their success. The arrogance and inexperience of their coach, one Diego Maradona.
It is the coach's responsibility to adequately prepare the team for every game. This includes games against seemingly weaker opposition.
It was no secret that Bolivia used the high altitude as a strategy against their opponents. Therefore most teams ensure they arrive a few days before the game to acclimatise and adjust to the added strain of playing with the thin air.
Maradona ignored this and it is for this reason why Argentina's fortunes may be in peril. They cannot afford to underestimate any opponent.
The stewardship of the team is as important as the talent at their disposal. The right strategy, tactics, game plan and direction in a game is ultimately the most significant factor in who wins or loses. The U.S. proved this with their win over Spain in the Confederations Cup.
By nullifying Spain's passing game and clogging the center of their 18 yard box, the U.S. did what many teams of greater pedigree and ranking have failed to do. Beat the then FIFA ranked number one Spain.
All that glitters is not gold and without the necessary cohesion and telepathic connection between each and every player on the field, having a squad with a collection of individual stars will result in just that, a squad of individual stars and not a team. A unit with a singular purpose and with chemistry.
Spain is proof of the need to have this most vital element to achieve synergy on a team. The whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts. This is perhaps the reason why Messi has not been as prolific for country as he has been for club. Why he has so far been unable to replicate his display of sublime dribbling, passing and scoring skills he has employed with such devastating fashion for FC Barcelona.
But can the great Diego Maradona inspire his team to victory? As a player, Maradona's influence on his team and exploits on the field are unquestionable. But can he achieve the same feat as coach?
Many Argentinians hope so. He hopes so too if only just to get the last laugh and silence his many critics. Should Argentina lift the world Cup trophy, he promises to streak across the streets of Buenos Aires naked. No one doubts that he is crazy enough to do it but the bigger question is whether he is sober and competent enough to lead them to victory.
In their most recent friendly, la Albiceleste were dominant against Concacaf minnows, Canada, trotting to a 5-0 win with their much vaunted Maradona heir apparent, Messi, on the bench. A more telling and impressive display was their 1-0 win against World Cup pedigree, Germany, in a friendly played in March. Germany is a much better team to gauge their preparation than Canada.
The coach has yet to decide on his final strike partnership. Does he partner Messi with Iguain, Tevez or Milito. Should he utilize a three man attack using Messi as a roaming striker very similar to how he is used by Pep Guardiola in Barcelona. A number of polls were done to see what the fans think but the decision is not theirs to make.
In 2006, the Argentines were favored to go far if not all the way in the tournament. With the likes of Roman Riquelme marshaling the midfield and young stars, Messi and Tevez, providing cameo appearances off the bench, they did get off to a flying start but crashed out in the quarter finals.
I believe this Argentina squad is much stronger than the squad of 2006. Not since the world cup winning 1986 and 1990 squads has Argentina looked this promising.
Messi's performances have outshone that of Crespo and Batistuta when they were expected to deliver the trophy. Currently, Argentina has perhaps the most lethal strike force, forwards, among any of the 32 teams going to the world cup.
Only Spain, Brazil and Germany and to a lesser extent England can lay that claim. Spain perhaps with David Villa and Torres are the closest. But to have Milito, Higuain, Tevez and Aguero has forward options with the seasons they have had, is unmatched by any other team. The top four have over 125 goals combined in the just concluded EPL, La Liga, Seria A, Champions league competitions.
These are good odds and very vital statistics on which to predict a successful run for the Albiceleste. But can the "Hand of God" guide them to victory?
Another hot debate has been what formation should Argentina use in the World Cup:
Option 1: More Defensive
J. Gutierrez / Samuel / Demichelis / Heinze
M.Rodriguez / Mascherano / Veron/Di María
Messi / Higuaín
Option 2. More Attacking
J. Gutierrez / Samuel / Demichelis / Heinze
M.Rodriguez / Mascherano / Di María
Messi / Higuaín
I believe option 2 should be the starting 11 with Tevez coming in for Milito as the super sub to run at tiring defenses and Pastore replacing Higauin and Aguero, Messi when "the flea" is no longer needed on the field. What say you?
Many questions have been asked leading up to this world cup. Does Messi deserve to be named among the greatest to ever play the game? Is he better than Maradona? Can he deliver as his idol did?
Can Maradona achieve greatness on the sidelines as he did on the field as a player? Will Argentina finally live up to their great expectations or will they falter and fall prey to ghosts of their recent past and flatter to deceive?
I guess we all will have to wait with baited breadths come July 12 to get the answers?
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