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Perfect time for Leo to tick that last box

Group F
Messi, Dzeko, Dejagah and Obi Mikel

 

Lionel Messi has won every major global title barring the World Cup and Argentina are hoping he will be able to tick that last 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, Argentina are playing down their their chances of overall victory and setting their sights pri marily on ending a quarter- final jinx. Balance is a key word for coach Alejandro Sabella (in pic), who has built a harmonious squad, who get on well 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 past four tournaments, going out to Germany in 2006 and 2010, and have not reached the semi-finals since Italy 1990. They were handed a good draw that should see them win Group F ahead of debutants Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria and advance to a last-16 meeting with the second-placed team in Group E, made up of Switzerland, Ecuador, France and Honduras.

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. Last year brought Sabella some problems, not least Messi's nagging hamstring injury, that he will have been glad to have got over well before the tournament starts. A virtual reserve side had 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.

 

Most teams heading to their maiden World Cup would probably be happy just to be there, but Bosnia-Herzegovina want more from a talented squad who stormed through qualifying to reach their first major tournament as an independent nation. With Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic scoring 18 of the team's 30 goals to form one of the most prolific strike partnerships in qualifying, Bosnia will fancy their chances against their Group F rivals.

While getting a result against the Argentines in their opening match at the Maracana may be a tall order, the side coached by former Yugoslavia forward Safet Susic (in pic) have every chance of reaching the knock-out stages. Susic and most of his players say that reaching the last 16 is a minimum requirement for a team boasting Dzeko and Ibisevic up front and Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic, Lazio winger Senad Lulic and Hoffenheim's Sejad Salihovic.

The defence is the weaker part of Bosnia's side and a lack of depth may also hurt them as the tournament wears on, with Susic acknowledging after qualifying that he has few first class experienced backups to choose from.

The 59-year-old coach may also need to impose iron-fisted discipline in the dressing room. Normally soft-spoken and ready to humour the media, Susic demonstrated his no-nonsense approach when he blasted Dzeko and captain Emir Spahic for dissent after a 2-0 friendly defeat by Egypt in Innsbruck in March. Known as a player who produced his best football under pressure, Susic must instil the same kind of grit and determination in his entertaining unit but they have the potential to become one of the tournament's surprise packages.

 

Iran head to Brazil as Asia's top-ranked nation but their hopes of reaching the knock-out stages of a World Cup for the first time have been hampered by a lack of top-class friendly opposition and a wave of negativity surrounding the team.
Since booking their spot in the finals by winning their Asian qualifying group last June, Iran have only played one international friendly match against Guinea in Tehran, which they lost 1-2.

Iran’s Portuguese boss Carlos Queiroz (in pic) bemoaned the situation, believed to be down to politics and finances, after the loss to Guinea, which drew withering criticism from a local media fed up with sluggish performances of an ageing team.
Iran managed only three goals in the first five games of their final Asian qualifying group before striker Reza ‘Gucci’ Ghoochannejhad, who was born in Tehran but emigrated to

Netherlands as a child, was found and fired the team to a fourth World Cup.
Although grouped with one of the tournament favourites Argentina, hopes were raised that they could advance to the last 16 for the first time after they were also drawn against Bosnia and Nigeria in an expected three-way battle for second place. The task of adding to their sole World Cup finals victory over political foes the United States in 1998 looks beyond them. “[We must] take this World Cup as a learning process, and that doesn’t mean that we go there for tourism. We go to Brazil to create a legacy and the legacy is to put the team in a good position.”

 

Nigeria have the ability to become the first African country to get past the group phase on three separate occasions but are increasingly an unpredictable force. Africa’s most populous nation advanced to the second round in their maiden World Cup finals appearance in 1994 and again four years later in France and will be fancied to finish among the top two in the group.

But the burden of expectation has often tripped up the ‘Super Eagles’, who represent a country with passionate, demanding and fickle fans who easily turn on their team when results are not achieved.

As in the United States in 1994, Nigeria arrive at the World Cup as African champions but their current side has none of the charisma and strong personalities of two decades ago when the team was captained by Stephen Keshi (in pic), who is now the coach, and featured stars like Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and Rashidi Yekini.
Keshi’s current squad has no international stars — their two most influential players come from the Premier League but neither John Obi Mikel of Chelsea nor Liverpool’s Victor Moses hold down regular places at their club sides. Yet Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations last year, after a stuttering start and winning with a swagger despite holding out little hope before the tournament started.
They eliminated hot favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter finals in a display of tough tournament temperament they will need in Brazil.

Much of their game is based on pacey attack, with a lot of emphasis on wide play, but their main finisher, Emmanuel Emenike, is often guilty of not taking his chances, while their defence has an air of vulnerability.

After a none-too-impressive friendly against fellow finalists Greece, Keshi said his side will have to improve if they are to make an impact. “We will always have very difficult games but the motivation will be to do a lot better than we managed in our last couple of games.” Keshi said. “The truth is we didn’t play our game. The importance of a friendly game is to know your weakness and what needs improvement.

“All I need is the mentality and discipline to dominate the game and take chances,” he added.

Compiled by Anshuman Roy