It's now or never for Messi


The Sports Network

( - As the biggest soccer star in Argentina since Diego Maradona, there is no way that Lionel Messi can escape the comparison.

Like Maradona, Messi is the biggest star of his generation and the face of Argentina's national team as well as the sport.

And while Messi has already accomplished far more on the club level than Maradona ever did, there is the small matter of the 1986 World Cup that stands between the two icons.

That year, Maradona carried Argentina to the title with a stunning performance that elevated him from mere mortal to deity in the eyes of his countrymen.

Messi has yet to capture the hearts of his soccer-mad country despite his incredible talent and achievements for Barcelona.

But a World Cup victory this summer in Brazil would change everything.

Argentina has developed a reputation as one of the most underachieving teams in the world when it comes to major tournaments in recent years, with the 2010 World Cup offering up yet another example.

Four years ago in South Africa, Messi was the reigning World Player of the Year and was establishing himself as a global star after leading Barcelona to a second straight La Liga title.

However, Argentina bowed out of the tournament with a whimper as Messi and his team was soundly beaten by a superior Germany side, 4-0, in the quarterfinals.

Despite his otherworldly goal output for Barcelona, Messi has managed just one goal in eight World Cup matches for Argentina, so the diminutive star will be carrying a considerable amount of pressure to perform this summer.

Brazil will enter the tournament as the favorites, but a number of factors seem to be working in Argentina's favor, giving Messi the best chance he will have in his career to deliver a World Cup to Argentina.

TIMING: At 26 years of age, Messi is in his theoretical prime, giving him a great chance to finally enjoy a big World Cup. His 28 goals in 31 La Liga matches this past season for Barcelona are pedestrian by his absurd standards, but he also battled injuries and should benefit from a brief rest between his league season and the World Cup. Messi already has a lot of miles on his legs, and this past season we have seen some injury problems begin to surface. Messi's 5-foot-7 frame will take a lot more of a pounding over the next four years, so physically this as good as he figures to be at the World Cup.

LOCATION: The fact that the World Cup is being played outside of Europe is traditionally a big advantage for South American sides, and one that Argentina hopes to exploit this year. Nine times the World Cup has been played outside of Europe, and eight times it has been won by a South American nation, with Spain becoming the first European side to lift the trophy off of European soil in 2010. Argentina will be familiar with the climate, won't have a big time adjustment to make and should be playing in stadiums full of passionate Argentina fans.

COACH: The great Maradona served as coach of Argentina's team in 2010, but he was little more than a mascot on the sidelines. His lack of overall tactical ability was particularly exposed in the quarterfinal loss to Germany as the Germans sat back and scored on the counter attack time and again, while Argentina just continued to attack in the same way, essentially running itself into a wall over and over again. Alejandro Sabella is the man in charge this time around, and he figures to bring some actual coaching acumen to the team. Sabella served as an assistant to Daniel Passarella during stints with Argentina and Uruguay on the national team level and he led Estudiantes to the 2009 Copa Libertadores title as manager. Under Sabella, Argentina should be a more organized team and go into games with more than just a Plan A.

SUPPORTING CAST: There is no doubt that the strength of this team is in the final third, where Messi will be joined by a gifted group of attackers that includes Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria. The team is so loaded up top that Juventus star Carlos Tevez, who was a member of the 2006 and 2010 World Cup teams, was left out of the 23-man squad. Argentina's biggest problem will come in defense, but the hope is that Manchester City duo Pablo Zabaleta and Martin Demichelis and can combine with Ezequiel Garay to keep opposing attacks at bay, with some help from veteran midfielder Javier Mascherano.

DRAW: Argentina couldn't have asked for a better draw and should have little trouble navigating its way to the top of Group F. Bosnia-Herzegovina figures to be the biggest challenge, while Nigeria and Iran shouldn't pose too much of a threat. Those three games will serve as merely dress rehearsals for Argentina before it gets down to the real business of the knockout round. But even in the round of 16 the team is likely to face Switzerland or Ecuador, which should lead to a quarterfinal meeting against Portugal or Belgium, which Argentina would be favored to win. As long as Brazil and Germany both win their respective groups they would be on the opposite side of the bracket, leaving Argentina to likely face either Spain, Uruguay or Italy in the semifinals.

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