PRETORIA - Argentina's exciting start to the World Cup is down to Lionel Messi's form, their attacking instincts and Diego Maradona's presence almost as a 12th player.
The colourful coach, who in the qualifiers cut a forlorn figure as the players failed to carry out his plans and who seemed unable to find answers from the touchline, makes his presence felt at games from the pre-match warm-up onwards.
Ever since Argentina qualified for the finals at the last gasp he has said: "I know what it takes to win the World Cup".
Maradona has since been transmitting that belief to his players, not just through motivation but in tactics.
He held a quick discussion with midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron on the touchline during a pause in the 1-0 win over Nigeria on Saturday and embraced Angel Di Maria because the brilliant young winger was struggling with stage fright.
In their second Group B game, a 4-1 victory over South Korea on Thursday, Maradona revitalised the attack by taking off Carlos Tevez and sending on Sergio Aguero.
Presented with a relatively easy group for a nation that has twice won the world title, Argentina have taken the game to their opponents and ensured they have won with set pieces if the skills of their forwards did not immediately bring goals.
Fortunately, defensive lapses have not cost them dear.
"When a team's state of mind is good, their potential grows," former top flight Argentine midfielder Ruben Capria, now a media pundit, told Reuters.
Maradona set out to play Brazil in a qualifier in September with similar tactics to those used against Nigeria and South Korea but ended up with egg on his face after a 3-1 home defeat.
"The individual performances are on the rise and that lifts the team," Capria said of their form in South Africa. "When the players came home for the qualifiers they did not play well."
Maradona pointed to the squad's depth, saying reserves slot in seamlessly and changes he might make against Greece on Tuesday due to injury or bookings would not weaken the team.
As for Messi, Capria said: "He has exceptional powers to make a difference."
Messi could already have chalked up three or four goals and there is no doubt that in this form the goals will come from his sweet left foot.
The second goal of Gonzalo Higuain's hat-trick against the Koreans was "98 percent Messi's for the move and his shot which came back off the post," added Capria.
Messi said: "I also had several chances but, no problem, I want to score but I'm not going to go crazy because I haven't."
He is making the others play, from deeper against South Korea to overcome their tight, scaled marking.
With qualification almost certain, the question is how well Argentina will do when they face another of soccer's big powers in the knockout phase or perhaps Uruguay in the second round.
"In football the result is never settled beforehand," said Capria.
Messi knows that only too well, having been surprised by Spain's loss to Switzerland in the European champions' opener on Wednesday and saying "that shows the World Cup is not easy".comments