By Rex Gowar
BUENOS AIRES, June 6 (Reuters) - Lionel Messi has won every major global title bar the World Cup and Argentina are hoping he will be able to tick that last remaining box with a side considered among the favourites for the title in their biggest rival's backyard.
If the "Fantastic Quartet" of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria are on song, Argentina can emerge victorious in Brazil to claim a third World Cup victory.
Despite boasting a wealth of riches in attack, however, Argentina are playing down their chances of overall victory and setting their sights primarily on ending a quarter-final jinx.
"It's very difficult to become world champions. We mustn't believe we're the best. In fact, we know we're not the best, but we are a (world) power," coach Alejandro Sabella said.
"We can't get involved in triumphalism... We must remain emotionally balanced and the more so when we go out onto the pitch," he warned.
Balance is a key word for Sabella, who has built a harmonious squad, who get on well both on and off the pitch.
This might explain the absence of striker Carlos Tevez despite his Juventus form, an individualist that Sabella feels he cannot seamlessly introduce to the team.
Argentina have reached the last eight at three of the last four tournaments, going out to Germany in 2006 and 2010, and have not reached the semi-finals since Italy 1990 when they reached the final and were beaten by the Germans.
They were handed a good draw that should see them win Group F ahead of debutants Bosnia, Iran and African champions Nigeria and advance to a last-16 meeting with the second-placed team in Group E, made up of France, Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.
Diego Maradona took a squad of similar strength to South Africa four years ago and a fourth successive win in the second round over Mexico set up a showdown with Germany, but the former captain's coaching abilities were found wanting at that stage and Argentina were thumped 4-0.
Sabella has the tactical know-how to weather the mounting difficulties as the tournament progresses and breaking the quarter-final barrier could see his team go all the way to the final again.
On the four occasions Argentina have reached the last four, 1930, 1978, 1986 and 1990, they have also gone on to play in the final winning in 1978 at home and 1986 in Mexico and losing in 1930 to hosts Uruguay in the first World Cup final and then again 60 years later in Rome.
Argentina won the 16-match South American qualifying group, cementing first place during a brilliant 2012 when their first-choice side went unbeaten in nine matches, including friendlies, and Messi scored 12 goals including two hat-tricks.
Last year brought Sabella some problems, not least Messi's nagging hamstring injury, and he will have been glad to have got over that well before the tournament kicks off on June 12.
A virtual reserve side suffered a solitary defeat in the qualifiers to Uruguay in October with key midfielder Fernando Gago, who dictates the pace of Argentina's game and acts as a supply line for Messi, missing that and most of their other matches through injury.
Surprise is a key element for Argentina, who play their best football when Gago, Javier Mascherano and Di Maria play in midfield behind Messi, Higuain and Aguero.
The transition from defence to midfield is a weakness along with dealing with high balls into the penalty area despite tall centre backs in Federico Fernandez and Ezequiel Garay.
Sergio "Chiquito" (little one) Romero is a big, imposing goalkeeper but he often dallies on his line when balls are crossed into the box. Sabella has kept faith with him despite his lack of regular first team football at Monaco.
(Editing by John O'Brien)
- Sports & Recreation
- Lionel Messi
- Sergio Aguero
- Alejandro Sabella
- Gonzalo Higuain
- Angel Di Maria