Maradona. Messi. Maradona. Messi. Diego Maradona, the former superstar player and now controversial coach of the Argentine national team. Messi, young Lionel, the Barcelona superstar who at age 22 is widely considered to be the greatest player currently lacing up his boots. You are going to hear those two names, over and over again, the names of two Argentinian soccer heroes known round the world. On Saturday morning at 9:00 am CDT, the ” Albiceleste” of Argentina meet the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the third game of the 2010 World Cup. The world will be watching to see if Maradona can be anywhere near as successful on the sidelines as he was on the pitch. Nigeria, managed by longtime Swedish national team coach Lars Lagerback, have appeared in three of the last four World Cup tournaments, but did not qualify in 2006.
Argentina boasts an embarassment of talent riches, particularily up front. Youngsters Messi, Sergio Aguero of Atletico Madrid and Gonzalo Higuain of Real Madrid are available, as well as Diego Milito of Champions League winner Inter Milan and Carlos Tevez of Manchester City, with long time Boca Juniors hero Martin Palermo, a surprising choice to be included in the squad, in reserve. In the midfield, Maradona looks like he’ll rely on 35 year-old Juan Sebastian Veron to pull the attacking strings, combined with such talents as Javier Mascherano and Maxi Rodriguez of Liverpool, Angel di Maria of Benfica, Newcastle’s Jonas Guitterez, Fiorentina’s Mario Bolati and 20-year-old Palermo starlet Javier Pastore. There have been hints that Maradona will use only a 3 man backline, with veterans Gabriel Heinze of Marseille, Walter Samuel of Inter Milan, Martin Demichelis of Bayern Munich and AS Roma’s Nicolas Burdisso being the most experienced defenders on the squad. Maradona did not include veteran Inter Milan defenders Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso on the team. Sergio Romero of Dutch team AZ Alkmaar is expected to start in goal, with the likely starting lineup including Heinze, Demichelis and Samuel at the back, with Mascherano, Di Maria, Veron and Guiterrez in the middle with Messi, Tevez and Higuian on top.
Many consider the current addition of the Nigerian national team to be weaker than previous teams. But there are plenty of experienced veterans on the 2010 squad. Victor Enyeama is the clear number one choice goalkeeper, with over 50 caps and experience in the 2002 World Cup and four Africa Cup of Nations’ tournaments. Coach Lagerbacks’ choice of starters on the backline will most likely include Marseille’s Taye Taiwo on the left and Chidi Odiah of CSKA Moscow on the right, with Everton’s Joseph Yobo pairing with either Dele Adeleye of Sparta Rotterdam or Danny Shittu of Bolton in the center. Midfield is somewhat muddled with an injury to Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel, but Dickson Etuhu of Fulham had a strong season in the EPL and will anchor the middle with perhaps either Ayila Yussuf of Dynamo Kiev or Monaco’s Lukman Haruna joining him. Hoffenheim’s Chinudu Obasi figures to play the right-wing and Peter Odemwingle of Lokomotiv Moscow on the other flank. Up front, Lagerback can choose from Everton’s Yakubu, Wolfsburg’s Obafemi Martins or Victor Obinna of Malaga, with Kanu and John Utaka of Portsmouth in reserve. The Nigerian squad is considered to be stronger offensively than on defense, where the backline has not shown a great deal of cohesion.
Maradona is probably the most controversial coach in the 2010 World Cup. His abundantly talented squad struggled in qualification, and some of his roster selections and tactics have been highly criticized. And that’s not factoring in his personal behavior over the years, including his promise to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina capture the trophy. Getting the best of out Lionel Messi, whose talents have been more observable for Barcelona than the national team, may tip Maradona’s reputation towards the genius end of the coaching spectrum and away from the controversial end. Nigeria should provide a good test for Argentina and Maradona.