Messi and Co out to stake home claim
Buenos Aires: Two factors ought to weigh heavily in Argentina`s favour as they embark on the Copa America, Latin America`s answer to the European Championship, from Friday.
First of all, they should be able to count on vociferous support as the host nation - although as players of relegated River Plate will reflect, it is when you are down that the fans will kick you the hardest.
Home advantage can be a double-edged sword - as the Argentinians know full well given that they lost out to Uruguay in the then South American Championship in 1916, when the notion of an international tournament was in its infancy.
Argentina are hosting for the first time since 1987, when they were flushed with their Diego Maradona-inspired World Cup success - notably after his exploits with hand and boot against England before a win over Germany in a stirring final.
Back then, the albiceleste came unstuck as they lost in the Copa semi-finals to Uruguay, who bagged a then record 13th title (they now share 14 with Argentina) despite the home side possessing firepower of the calibre of Maradona himself and Claudio Caniggia.
Footballing rivalry is intense enough across Latin America but the weight of hosting the tournament hangs heavy.
That is especially so for Argentina, who have been hosts eight times and, aside from their 1987 slip-up and another against the Uruguayans back in 1916, have won the trophy on every other occasion that they have welcomed their neighbours.
Much will depend on the second factor - whether they can get star man Lionel Messi to dig deep after a marathon season in Europe with Barcelona and harness his incredible club form to his sky blue and white-striped ambitions.
Argentina have won nothing at senior level since the 1993 edition under Alfio Basile and are looking to Messi and the likes of the irrepressible Carlos Tevez to remove that stain.
After six Copas - not to mention five World Cups - elapsing since then, patience is understandably wearing thin - two straight Olympic gold medals notwithstanding.
Small wonder, then, that fans of the home team demand an end to the drought come the July 24 final at the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires.
Coach Sergio Batista has to keep his eye on two balls at once given that he is under pressure to deliver on the home front over the next few weeks but also put in place the backbone of a new generation which can give Brazil a run for their money at the 2014 World Cup over the border.
With Brazil on a Copa hattrick, Batista and company will be anxious to avoid that scenario and hence want Messi to take the baton and spark a much longed-for triumph to top off a tremendous season under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.
Bolivia, makeweights save for one home win in 1963 – are Argentina`s first opponents on Friday ahead of Colombia and Costa Rica, the latter special guests after Japan had to withdraw owing to the consequences of the tsunami in March.
Batista, who replaced Diego Maradona afer the World Cup, says he is happy with his squad and optimistic after a final workout saw Albania dispatched 4-0 in a friendly a week ago.
"The team played well and I am happy as at times we served up just the kind of football to which we aspire," Batista summed up.
With Messi capable of providing ammunition as well as firing the bullets himself and with both Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain backing up Tevez in attack, goals should be no problem.
But the team could have a potential Achilles heel in that its defence does not appear particularly watertight even if centre backs Nicolas Burdisso of AS Roma and Barca’s Gabriel Milito have experience.
The 37-year-old Javier Zanetti of Inter Milan, still going strong 17 years after making his international debut and hence a throwback to the Maradona days, also has experience in spades.
Whether he still has the speed to keep young Brazilian colts such as Neymar in check is less clear.
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