Time for Argentina to answer critics

PRETORIA - Seldom has such a big question mark hung over Argentina at the start of a World Cup as that dogging the side Diego Maradona will put out against Nigeria in their Group B opener at Ellis Park on Saturday.

Argentina have stayed injury-free, unlike Nigeria who lost key midfielder John Obi Mikel, but fitness may be an issue for Lionel Messi after an exhausting season at Barcelona and Juan Sebastian Veron, 35, due to his age and all-action game.

"The 23 players are in optimum condition," team doctor Donato Villani told a news conference on Thursday. Now cast among the favourites after nearly failing to qualify last year, Argentina have the talent to go all the way but Maradona's players are an unknown quantity as a team.

They appear to have a good mix of youth and experience with the match possibly bringing together two old foes from the 2002 World Cup opener in Japan which Argentina won 1-0 - Veron and Nwankwo Kanu, who is likely to start on the bench for Nigeria.

Both missed the 2006 finals in Germany, Kanu because Nigeria did not qualify while Veron was overlooked after being made the scapegoat for Argentina's first-round elimination in Asia.

'NO PRESSURE'

Mikel, the biggest talent to emerge from Nigeria since their last World Cup appearance, will be sorely missed, said striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni.

"He's the best player in our team, but we still have a lot of quality in the side," Yakubu told Reuters in an interview.

"We're not under any pressure, Argentina are the team with pressure, we're just going out to enjoy it.

"I feel I'm getting back to my best form. I know I have to take a big responsibility," added Yakubu, know for his profligacy in front of goal.

With Carlos Tevez joining Lionel Messi - who almost single-handedly won the 2005 World Youth Cup final for Argentina against Nigeria - and Gonzalo Higuain up front, the Argentines will have no attacking inhibitions.

But in the face of a muscular Nigeria strike force, they will have to think carefully about their defensive formation.

"(The Nigerians) are very good footballers, athletic players with much physical power and technique," Argentina full-back Gabriel Heinze said.

"I think we'll always defend with a line of four," he added, suggesting right wing-back Jonas Gutierrez will have to focus on defensive duties.

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