Argentina aiming for World Cup comeback

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> Argentina is hoping teenage forward Lionel Messi can erase the memories of the team's early exit from the last World Cup.

Updated: February 25, 2007 11:40 IST
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Buenos Aires:

Argentina is hoping teenage forward Lionel Messi can erase the memories of the team's early exit from the last World Cup. Argentina is expected to have only six players return from the tournament in South Korea and Japan, with 18-year-old Messi the big name alongside Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez and Hernan Crespo. After being favored to go far in 2002 and leaving after the first round, Argentina now feels no pressure. Or so coach Jose Pekerman says. ''We are heading into Germany as just one more national team, without the baggage of being favorites. That's going to let us start this tournament much more relaxed,'' Pekerman said. ''Now all the pressure is on them,'' he added, referring to defending champion Brazil. But is it? The 56-year-old Pekerman has never led a first-division team and only replaced Marcelo Bielsa as Argentina coach last year. He coached Argentina's under-20 team to World Cup titles in 1995, '97 and 2001. Many of those players he coached then are now based in Europe and expected to go to Germany. Pekerman will have Villarreal midfielders Riquelme and Juan Pablo Sorin, Valencia's Pablo Aimar, Deportivo La Coruna's Fabricio Coloccini and Sevilla's Javier Saviola to choose from. Midfielder Esteban Cambiasso of Inter Milan, and Corinthians' Tevez and Javier Mascherano will also play prominent roles. Then, of course, there is Messi, who has been likened to Diego Maradona. ''I think Lionel has all the necessary qualities to be the best in the world,'' Maradona has said. ''I hope it happens for him because he is a great kid and handles himself really well.'' Pekerman is wary of placing too much pressure on Messi, who should be fit from a thigh injury that could rule him out of FC Barcelona's Champions League final against Arsenal this month. The ''World Cups of Pele, Maradona and (Franz) Beckenbauer don't exist anymore,'' Pekerman said. Argentina will be missing the retired Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina's leading goalscorer with 56 goals in 78 matches, Diego Simeone and German Burgos. Argentina lost 3-2 in friendlies against England and Croatia, while veteran goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri's form has wavered and backup 'keepers German Lux and Leo Franco have rarely played. But Pekerman can call on tough defenders like Roberto Ayala of Valencia and Manchester United's Gabriel Heinze to strengthen his defense. ''We have some problems but we are going to resolve them,'' Ayala said. ''I think things are going to go well for us. I can't tell you why I feel that way, but I do feel it's that way and that's all I have to say.'' With Cambiasso and Riquelme controlling the midfield, Messi, Tevez and Crespo are favored for key roles in attack. Crespo, who was second choice behind Batistuta in 1998 and 2002, scored 16 goals in qualifiers. Meanwhile, Pekerman could even call up 17-year-old forward Sergio Aguero from Independiente. Argentina has enough quality players to add a third title to its 1978 and 1986 wins, according to Julio Grondona, the Argentine soccer federation president. Argentina opens Group C against Ivory Coast on June 10 in Hamburg. It plays Serbia-Montenegro in Gelsenkirchen on June 16, and the Netherlands in Frankfurt on June 21. (AP)

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