Group B: Argentina
Many might expect Maradona's men to self-destruct Ã¢ÂÂ but, says Martin Mazur, the dressing room is united, and stuffed with rather good players
Argentinians know that Brazil took 24 years to win their first World Cup after Pele. And precisely 24 years after Maradona led them to glory in 1986, they feel the time to win the trophy back has come. But can they pull it off?
Ã¢ÂÂYes, I firmly believe victories bring more victories and we are going down that road,Ã¢ÂÂ said captain Javier Mascherano after defeating Germany in Munich, the last big friendly before heading for South Africa.
In the last two years Argentina have rarely played well, but there are mystic signs surrounding the team, all emanating from Mexico 86 - starting with Maradona himself, sitting on the bench and barking out orders alongside Carlos Bilardo and a backroom staff including players of that generation.
The omens continue with the fact that they were a minute away from not qualifying, in a decisive game against Peru at home, just as in 1985, and will now play the first World Cup game against South Korea, exactly as it was in Mexico.
And then there's a hungry Lionel Messi, undoubtedly the worldÃ¢ÂÂs best player, even if he hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been able to perform to his best in an Argentina shirt. Ã¢ÂÂTo be a legend you must win a World Cup,Ã¢ÂÂ says the all-too-aware mini-magician, obsessed with lifting the trophy just as he did the U20 World Cup and the Olympic title.
Ã¢ÂÂWe need new heroes,Ã¢ÂÂ admits Maradona, adding that he would like to see Ã¢ÂÂthe Mascheranos and the HeinzesÃ¢ÂÂ coming back home with the trophy. Messi is the greatest hope, but not the only one: the addition of Real MadridÃ¢ÂÂs Gonzalo Higuain has finally ended the search for a classic No.9 in the mould of Batistuta and Crespo.
Messi and Higuain aside, though, MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs Argentina hardly resemble the attack-minded formations of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Underlining the example of Italy in 2006, the gaffer is convinced that World Cups are won with good defences. Having witnessed as a player the Italian school of catenaccio, heÃ¢ÂÂs not willing to give away anything in the back, even if it means picking four powerful centre-backs to fill the back four, plus Mascherano patrolling as anchorman.
The result is his 4-1-3-2, which proved to be effective but very cautious, leaving Messi either too deep or too isolated, and with no attacking full-backs to drag markers out of position Ã¢ÂÂ movement that Maradona promises will be improved before the World Cup. Ã¢ÂÂI ask Leo to do one thing, while in Barcelona, Guardiola asks him to do a different thing,Ã¢ÂÂ says Diego. Ã¢ÂÂThe important thing is weÃ¢ÂÂre both very happy with his performances.Ã¢ÂÂ
Where to play Messi and how to bring the best out of him has become a national obsession, but inside ArgentinaÃ¢ÂÂs bunker there are no worries. Ã¢ÂÂWe are lucky that he is Argentinian, we just have to let him be,Ã¢ÂÂ says veteran Juan Sebastian Veron, who has risen to the challenge of replacing playmaker Juan RomÃÂ¡n Riquelme to become the teamÃ¢ÂÂs spiritual leader.
Flanked by two pacy wingers (Benfica's much-admired Angel di Maria and Newcastle's Jonas Guttierez), Veron dictates the tempo with his long and short passing. With Veron, Messi becomes more involved. Without him, Argentina look confused, Messi less active. But while bringing the former Man United man back has been arguably MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs best decision, picking Sergio Romero as his No.1 was the riskiest one and itÃ¢ÂÂs paid off.
After losing to Brazil at home to three set-pieces, Argentina have also raised the average height of their team, with the aerially dominant powerful Martin Demichelis and Walter Samuel supplemented by Gabriel Heinze, who Maradona confusingly seems to have soft spot for.
A physical game based on muscle and peppered with quick (counter-)attacks, set-pieces and a little inspiration from the deadly dwarves. ThatÃ¢ÂÂs ArgentinaÃ¢ÂÂs masterplan for World Cup glory.
A rock-solid defence. This is also a squad dominated by versatile footballers: 80 percent play in two or more positions. Messi is playing the best football of his career, Higuain too, with Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero providing good options from the bench. The dressing room is also, believe it or not, united.
Defensive full-backs mean this team doesnÃ¢ÂÂt have a surprise element. There are also question marks over VeronÃ¢ÂÂs fitness and the ability to keep the ball against the very best teams, while ArgentinaÃ¢ÂÂs physical approach could lead to disciplinary problems Ã¢ÂÂ not something you need at the World Cup.
Martin Palermo returned to the national team 10 years after the 1999 Copa America in which heÃ¢ÂÂd missed three penalties against Colombia. The Boca striker scored the vital goal against Peru that practically secured ArgentinaÃ¢ÂÂs ticket to South Africa and is the leading goalscorer under Maradona with six.
The Coach: Diego MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂ¨
Has the rare chance to emulate Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer and win the trophy as player and manager. Having tried out 100 players in less than 18 months, he has made many decisions, good and bad. His motivational skills will be more useful during a knockout tournament than they were during the qualifiers.
Key Man: Angel di Maria
Ã¢ÂÂ¨Opposition defences will concentrate only on Messi at their peril. As Everton discovered to their cost, the 22-year-old Benfica winger is an electrifying dribbler and increasing goal threat. The World Cup could secure his move to one of EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs biggest clubs Ã¢ÂÂ and future greatness.
Probable Team (4-1-3-2): Romero; Otamendi, Demichelis, Samuel, Heinze; Mascherano; GutiÃÂ©rrez, VerÃÂ³n, Di MarÃÂa; Messi; HiguaÃÂn
Nigeria, June 12, 4pm, Johannesburg
South Korea, June 17, 1.30pm, Johannesburg
Greece, June 22, 8.30pm, Polokwane
Qualified Fourth in CONMEBOL group
Chile (H) 2-0
Venezuela (A) 2-0
Bolivia (H) 3-0
Colombia (A) 2-1
Ecuador (H) 1-1
Brazil (A) 0-0
Paraguay (H) 1-1
Peru (A) 1-1
Uruguay (H) 2-1
Chile (A) 0-1
Venezuela (H) 4-0
Bolivia (A) 1-6
Columbia (H) 1-0
Ecuador (A) 0-2
Brazil (H) 1-3
Paraguay (A) 1-0
Peru (H) 2-1
Uruguay (A) 1-0
World Cup record
1934 1st Round
1958 1st Round
1962 1st Round
1974 2nd Round
1982 2nd Round
2002 1st Round