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Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Team preview: Argentina

By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com

It would be easy enough to dedicate an entire Argentina preview to the shenanigans of Diego Maradona. Much of the press surrounding the Argentine team in South Africa will concern the man who was once the world's best player, and now coaches Argentina. But it would be a huge mistake to overlook his talented team, which includes the player generally considered the world's current top gun, Leo Messi.

Argentina has the skill to overcome every obstacle -- including its coach's unpredictable decision-making -- and take home the World Cup. The Argentines are blessed with an embarrassment of attacking riches that rivals any nation headed to South Africa. The biggest question is how to use those weapons. Maradona never did quite figure it out during qualifying, which included a 6-1 loss to lowly Bolivia, and only a last-gasp victory on the final day of the South American round-robin secured a spot in South Africa.

Coach: Diego Maradona

It seems there's little time left for soccer in the whirlwind of sensational news following the Argentine coach. In just the last month, Maradona has run over a cameraman outside the Argentine FA, ordered special ventilated toilet seats for his hotel room in South Africa, and pledged to streak in Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the World Cup.

It's probably in Maradona's best interest to generate so many distracting off-the-field stories, lest he leave too much time to analyze his coaching ability. As a tactician, game manager and squad selector, Maradona is considered subpar, and most feel his frequent and inexplicable whims at the helm of the national team are a huge detriment to Argentina's chances.

Style of play

The question of formation revolves largely around the spark plug, Messi, and how to best utilize the Barcelona phenom. Maradona has said he's willing to be as flexible as need be to give Messi a chance to shine. That probably means a loose 4-4-2 with Messi roaming free behind a lone striker. From midfield, Angel di Maria will provide some firepower on one wing, while Jonas Gutierrez helps with defensive responsibilities on the other side.

Players to watch

1. Lionel Messi. All around the world, soccer fans will have an eye on Messi, but not just because the young Argentine has proved himself the most entertaining player in the world. Messi has yet to replicate his club form at the international level, and Argentina is counting on a breakout tournament from the brightest of its collection of stars. Success could mean a title.

2. Juan Sebastian Veron. Maradona has already named the Estudiantes field general a starting central midfielder, but questions remain as to how much the 35-year-old has left in the tank. Other attacking midfield options include the streaky Maxi Rodriguez and unseasoned Javier Pastore, so much of Argentina's success likely hinges on Veron.

3. Angel di Maria. With opposing defenses forced to focus on the forwards, the young Benfica winger will have some space and time to do what he does best -- cause chaos in the final third. Wanted by the biggest clubs in Europe, di Maria has all the tools to make South Africa 2010 the coming-out party for a long and illustrious career.

Who's hot

Diego Milito. The Inter Milan striker has been on a rapid ascent all season, climaxing with two sparkling finishes in the Champions League final -- and demonstrating that he's ready to play a role in South Africa.

Who's not

Mario Bolatti. There are plenty of questions about Maradona's decision-making process, and the inclusion of Bolatti is a large one. The midfielder featured irregularly this spring for Fiorentina following a winter transfer.

Three key questions

1. How will the attacking options be aligned? Maradona chose six forwards for his roster, five of whom had sensational seasons in Europe. With Sergio Aguero, Messi, Milito, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez to choose from, even a more seasoned coach would have a selection quandary.

2. Can Messi finally find his form at the attacking level? The 22-year-old has become a prodigy by shining at Barcelona, but his performances with the Argentine national team have yet to measure up. Whether he can change that in South Africa is one of the biggest questions of all.

3. Can Argentina win with Maradona? Coach Maradona is an Argentine national disaster just waiting to happen. Can he minimize his burning desire to show up his critics by trying unusual tactics and alignments that only impede Argentina's success? It remains to be seen.

Projected lineup

G Sergio Romero, AZ Alkmaar (Holland)
D Nicolas Otamendi, Velez Sarsfield (Argentina)
D Martin Demichelis, Bayern Munich (Germany)
D Walter Samuel, Inter Milan (Italy)
D Gabriel Heinze, Marseille (France)
M Jonas Gutierrez, Newcastle (England)
M Juan Sebastian Veron, Estudiantes La Plata (Argentina)
M Javier Mascherano, Liverpool (England)
M Angel di Maria, Benfica (Portugal)
F Lionel Messi, Barcelona (Spain)
F Diego Milito, Inter Milan (Italy)