Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo
There may be only one man in world soccer who can stop Lionel Messi from fulfilling his destiny of immortality – and he will be sharing a locker room with him at the World Cup.
Given the Argentine forward's spectacular efforts for Barcelona this season, it has become increasingly apparent that there is no defender on the planet who can keep Messi in check when he is operating at his peak. No, the only thing potentially standing in the way of Messi showing the world why he is poised to claim his place among the all-time greats this summer is … Diego Maradona.
Argentina's coach is the last man who won a World Cup virtually single-handedly, carrying the South American side on his shoulders to triumph in the 1986 tournament in Mexico. As a prodigiously skilled performer himself, and widely accepted as one of the two best players in history along with Brazil's Pele, it could be reasonably expected that Maradona would have some idea of how to best utilize Messi's talents.
Instead, the 49-year-old's 18 months on the job have coincided with some mediocre form in national colors for Messi – at least when compared to his extraordinary displays for Barca.
"It frustrates me that I have not played my best for my country," Messi said. "It is a matter of pride, desire to represent Argentina as well as I can, and also personal pride and satisfaction."
There is a strong seam of opinion in professional soccer circles that Maradona's erratic approach and failure to settle upon a consistent playing system have stymied the effectiveness of the player with the world – and maybe the World Cup – at his feet.
Training sessions under Maradona are disorganized at best, utterly shambolic at worst. Even the most experienced of players have struggled to understand and adapt to the regime. More than 100 players have been used by the coach … a staggering number in contrast to other leading sides.
In La Liga and the Champions League, Messi churns out one magical performance after another. The World Footballer of the Year saved his finest masterpiece for this week, with an incredible four-goal haul that destroyed Arsenal at the Camp Nou and left the international soccer community gaping in wonder. For Argentina, though, there is often a lack of direction, and Messi is rarely given the freedom to roam which he enjoys at club level.
Maradona has something of a dilemma, with Gonzalo Higuain playing excellent soccer for Real Madrid and Carlos Tevez shining with Manchester City. Each of those men has a right to consider himself among the top 20 players in the world right now and would command a guaranteed spot on any other team. And yet, even with Sergio Aguero also in the mix, the embarrassment of riches does not mean Maradona should employ a three-man frontline.
Indeed, he needs to build his team around Messi or risk committing an outrageous act of soccer wastefulness. Maradona had his moment of crowning glory in 1986, as did Pele 16 years earlier and Zinedine Zidane in 1998. Those were examples of the world's best player stamping his authority on the biggest event of all. Messi is primed to do so, but much depends on his coach.
There is no room for democracy here, and the best (if not fairest) option would appear to be Messi and Higuain as a two-pronged attack, with Tevez and Aguero on the bench. Higuain is slightly taller and would offer a better foil to Messi, while Tevez could be a fine later option as substitute. Aguero is Maradona's son-in-law but does seem to be fourth in the pecking order.
If the Argentines win the World Cup, it won't be because they had the deepest roster. It will be because they found a way to maximize Messi's ability and build a supporting cast around him. And because Maradona found a way to be a facilitator and not a roadblock to a level of genius that he should understand better than anyone.
GROUP C WATCH
• England: Fabio Capello faces more concern over Wayne Rooney, after the Manchester United striker appeared to aggravate the problem against Bayern Munich on Wednesday.
• Algeria: Portsmouth midfielder Hassan Yebda is on course to make the World Cup after making a solid recovery from a knee problem.
• Slovenia: Goakeeper Samir Handanovic is in superb form and helped Udinese beat Juventus 3-0 in Serie A last weekend.
The United States jumped two spots to No.16 in the latest edition of the FIFA World Rankings.
The specter of terror attacks continues to be a major World Cup concern after threats were posted on an Al-Qaeda website last week.
WORLD CUP NUMEROLOGY
• Sixty-four: Number of matches to be played in the 2010 World Cup, over a span of 31 days.
THE WALKING WOUNDED
• Oguchi Onyewu: Gooch is back in Italy after returning to California last week for a knee checkup and is still making good progress. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 90 percent.
• Charlie Davies: Davies continues to train with French club Sochaux and has suffered no relapses as he seeks to complete a miraculous recovery from last October's car crash. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 55 percent.
• Stuart Holden: The versatile former Houston Dynamo star will be back in training with Bolton Wanderers in two weeks and hopes to play the last two games of the season. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 90 percent.
• Clint Dempsey: More worrying news for Bob Bradley as Dempsey sustained another injury – this time to his thigh – ruling him out of Fulham's Europa League quarterfinal. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 95 percent.
PUT IT ON YOUR CALENDAR
• December 2: Yes, it is months off but it will be here before you know it. The final decision on the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be announced and the United States is feeling confident (for 2022, at least).