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Argentina ready for the big Copa kickoff

30 Jun 2011 18:00:07

Argentina ready for the big Copa kickoff

Argentina hope to take the first step Friday to ending a trophy drought of almost two decades when they meet Bolivia in their opening Copa America pool match at La Plata outside Buenos Aires.

Argentinian fans have ridden a dizzy rollercoaster in recent years.

On the positive side, they have seen their youngsters capture two consecutive Olympic crowns and live in hope that the greatest current player in the world, Lionel Messi, can finally this summer transfer his effervescent Barcelona form to the national shirt.

On the negative side, the seniors struggled to qualify for last summer's World Cup in South Africa. Having finally got there under the passionate but controversial tutelage of former idol Diego Maradona, they shone brightly enough in the group phase only to be flattened by Germany thereafter.

That heralded the start of the post-Maradona era under Sergio Batista, likewise a member of the 1986 World Cup-winning side.

Since those heady days, a 1990 final loss to the Germans aside, Argentina have struggled to find a winning blend either at world or indeed continental level.

Their 1993 Copa final win, courtesy of a Gabriel Batistuta double over Mexico, remains the team's last senior honour.

Even that triumph was a seat-of-the-pants affair with penalty shootout wins in the quarters over Brazil and then Colombia in the semis.

Since then the slate has been blank, hence the imperative to bring some cheer back to the home fans - many still digesting the shock relegation of River Plate, 33-times national champions but just relegated for the first time.

Batista will have felt that shock demise as much as anyone having won the title with the club 21 years ago.

Now the feeling is the squad can end the drought, says skipper and Barcelona stalwart Javier Mascherano.

"We're at home, in our own country, and that adds spice. Argentina must win to return to the top of the podium," Mascherano told reporters.

"It's a long time since we won a title."

Asked if there was unfinished business to attend to after their World Cup implosion against the Germans, Mascherano was adamant.

"No, we have a different coach, the squad has been revamped. It's a new group, with new goals to achieve."

The former Liverpool star had earlier praised Batista as someone who "has very clear ideas and is able to pass them on."

After much bickering between Maradona and the Argentina Football Association (AFA), whose head, Julio Grondona, is scarcely a personal friend of the Pibe de Oro (golden boy), the AFA turned to Batista as the man to spark a revival in fortunes.

He has the kudos of having engineered the 2008 Beijing Games win and now will expect to steer a path past the Bolivians - generally continental minnows but who did nonetheless thrash their rivals 6-1 in a World Cup qualifier, albeit at altitude in La Paz.

Next up will be Colombia and Costa Rica, completing a group the hosts ought to win with something to spare if only for their firepower of Messi, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Juentus target Sergio Aguero, as well as the wily Angel Di Maria.

Friendly form is unlikely to prove much of a guide - but if recent outings are anything to go by Argentina are somewhat schizophrenic. Batista recorded early wins over both Spain and Brazil but those successes were followed by losses to Nigeria and Poland.

More pertinently, Argentina are desperate to prevent a Brazil hattrick on their own soil, having lost the past two finals to the auriverde, who start their Group B campaign Sunday against Venezuela and later meet Paraguay and Ecuador.

Motivation enough, quite apart from 18 barren years.


AFP

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