One thing that has been evident for the Argentines in this World Cup campaign is that Lionel Messi is starting to find his best for his country. The Barcelona star has certainly had his critics whilst playing in the blue and white, from both the media and sections of the fans, but the three wins that Argentina have achieved in the group stage have all starred Messi, who has been the focal point of their attacks.
The playmaker who celebrated his 23rd birthday today has received the ultimate compliment for anyone of Argentine nationality. Coach Diego Maradona has described the forwards form ‘as good as mine’ when the legend won the 1986 World Cup for his country. “Leo is ready to go on to a pitch and leave it [World Cup] with the crown. I think he’s there where I was in 1986. I believe he has broken the mould and is ready, let’s end the comparisons between us.”
La Pulga (the flea) has been in superb form in the three games, producing an amazing number of shots on goal for his country. That number is 20 and although he has yet to find the back of the net , Messi has assisted on a number of goals for his team especially in the 4-1 win over Korea Republic and has been one of best players in the tournament. “I’m not worried about it – obviously I’d prefer them to go in, but it’s not a big deal. What’s important is that we keep playing well and that the team wins. With a bit of luck, I’ll score against Mexico in the last 16,” he said with a smile.
Maradona has been clever in employing the Argentina ace in behind the two strikers – a different role from his right wing role for Barcelona. Maradona is confident that his star will eventually score: “I was sorry Messi didn’t get a goal,” he said after the Greece victory. “I dived on the ground when his shot hit the post and if there’d been a swimming pool around I’d have jumped in head first.” This just shows the character that the coach has – something which has been a highlight of the tournament.
Lionel Messi is likely to be the first name on the team sheet on Sunday, when they face Mexico at Soccer city in Johannesburg. Although Messi is a certainty to play, the coach now faces some unwelcome selection headaches, as the majority of the reserve squad performed great against Greece. Jonas Gutierrez is back from suspension and although the player is weak playing at full back, he is likely to be reinstated. That is likely to disappoint Clemente Rodriguez, who looked comfortable in defence and threatened in attack in the last game. Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez are expected to return to the attacking frontline, to replace Diego Milito and Maradona’s son-in-law Sergio Aguero. The two didn’t really threaten the Greek defence in the game – something which needs to be changed against strong Mexican backline.
The Mexicans have great attacking potential and are likely to pose a great attacking threat, something that Juan Sebastien Veron is wary off: “Now it is inevitable we will meet good teams. We play Mexico and we must be prepared for whatever comes. We are going very well and we are all on the same wavelength, a factor that is key in a World Cup.”
Something that Diego Maradona also mentioned is his wariness in relation to his opponent’s tactics and selection. “It’s impossible to know what team they will play. Yesterday I had some information that it will be one team then this morning other information that it would be another.I don’t know if (Cuauhtemoc) Blanco will play, or (Guillermo) Franco, although I hope he doesn’t because he’s good in the air. I think (Javier) Hernandez will play, he moves well all across the front line. I think Marquez will play at sweeper because he looked lost in midfield. But these are just my ideas. We know it will be a tough match but with the team and players we have, we can move forward.”
Argentina’s attacking threat is something to beware of, and this game has all the ingredients to be a cracking game of football.