All in Diego's hands

Team in focus Argentina:Latin Americans bank on coach Maradona and Messi

All in Diego's hands

A nation’s hope: Argentina will rely heavily on Lionel Messi’s striking power to provide momentum to their campaign in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa . AFP

Silky as his playing skills may have been, cast in the role of coach Maradona has presided over a team that has at times looked to be as leaden as the one he played in was fleet of foot.

A surprise choice to replace Alfio Basile, who quit in October 2008, Maradona endured a humiliating series of losses — the nadir being a 6-1 hiding in Bolivia — before Argentina ultimately came through with victory against Uruguay in their final qualifying match.
There are now two questions on the lips of the Albiceleste’s fans. The first: has Maradona got what it takes to emulate Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer by winning World Cup glory for the nation as both player and coach?

The second: can he get the best out of the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, who has yet to consistently replicate his sparkling Barcelona form in the sky blue and white of his country?

Maradona says that Messi himself holds the answer to the second question. “He must be the owner of the team. He knows it. We have the best player in the world in our team,” says the coach.

“We will give him lots of responsibility.” Messi, a junior world champion in 2005, was left on the bench by former coach Jose Pekerman for the 2006 World Cup quarter-final exit to Germany and he knows that to enter the all-time hall of fame he has to cut it beyond club level.

“To become a legend, to become great, you have to also win the World Cup,” he said in a recent interview with El Mundo newspaper. Raising the bar to that height does not entirely torpedo the claims to sporting immortality of Johan Cruyff, a success as player and coach at Barcelona a generation before Messi.

But those who stand at the apex of the sport — including Pele, Beckenbauer and Maradona himself — all have World Cup winners’ medals in their collections. Maradona already knows that Messi is his key ingredient but he also appears to have well-developed ideas about the rest of the recipe. An impressive 1-0 friendly win in Germany in March was built upon a defence featuring four centre-backs in Nicolas Otamendi, Martin Demichelis, Walter Samuel and Gabriel Heinze, and Maradona says he intends to stick with this defensive formula.

Captain Javier Mascherano will shield the defence, with veteran Juan Sebastian Veron slightly further forward and flying Benfica winger Angel Di Maria stationed on the left.
Newcastle United’s Jonas Gutierrez is likely to perform a largely defensive role on the right flank, with in-form Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain — scorer of 27 league goals last season — completing the outfield line-up. Argentina face South Korea, Nigeria and Greece in Group B and it was against Greece at the 1994 World Cup that Maradona coincidentally scored his last international goal, before earning a ban for a positive drug test.

The fact that Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez, Inter Milan’s Diego Milito and Atletico Madrid’s Sergio Aguero cannot be assured of a starting place demonstrates the enviable depth of resources at the coach’s disposal. As Maradona insists, they will “fear no-one.”

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