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Argentina are fourth favourites for the World Cup at odds of 9 to 1, but Argentine fans feel that that might be optimistic after recent injuries to its forwards Lionel Messi of Barcelona, and Carlos Tevez of Brazilian Corinthians.
Messi, who pulled a muscle in Barcelona’s 4-1 elimination of Chelsea, has become, at 18, Argentine fans’ favourite player without having played professional football in his home country.
Claims of his being the new “Young Maradona” have been greeted with some scepticism. Middlesbrough and Portsmouth supporters are likely to understand this considering that both Carlos Marinelli and Andrés D’Alessandro carried the tag in the early stages of their careers.
Messi, on the other hand, excels in a way Argentines admire: in foreign lands while earning praise from foreign press, football players and managers, and while playing under a Dutch manager (Frank Rijkaard) who Argentines consider an Argentine-basher after he let Juan Riquelme and Javier Saviola, two much admired players in their homeland, go from Barcelona through the backdoor in recent years.
Messi has earned Rijkaard’s respect, in part, by becoming the youngest player to ever score for Barcelona. Handed the chance to play for Argentina, Messi has been in form as well in spite of being sent off only three minutes into his debut in a friendly against Hungary after he entered as a substitute. Argentines could not help referring to an inevitable coincidence: Maradona’s Argentine debut in 1977 was also against Hungary.
On March 1, in Geneva, Messi started for Argentina in the team’s latest match with an outstanding performance in a 3-2 loss to Croatia, setting up the first goal and hitting the second.
The first goal was scored by Tevez, who at age 20 became the most expensive transfer in South American history when he moved from Argentina’s Boca Juniors to Corinthians for just under 20 million dollars in 2004.
In spite of a cold reception in Brazil, a country not eager to open its arms to an Argentine forward, Tevez went on to end the season as captain and top scorer of the championship winning side and was chosen the tournament’s best player.
Both Messi and Tevez - who sprained an ankle in a Copa Libertadores match - are expected to be out for under a month. Some consider it a good chance for them to rest during the final run towards Germany 2006, but coach José Pekerman is likely to be less assured.
Injuries have plagued a number of key players this season the season. Gabriel Heinze and Roberto Ayala - the starting backs – have spent several months off the pitch.
Nicolás Burdisso – Ayala’s backup – was absent from Inter Milan during the last semester of 2005 due to his baby daughter suffering an illness and returned in January only in an effort to get in form for the World Cup.
Two days before Messi’s injury, Hernán Crespo’s reserve, Luciano Figueroa (who had a short stint at Birmingham in 2003), broke a leg playing for River Plate and has been ruled out until after the World Cup.
Centre-midfielder Javier Mascherano was also out until recently after he broke a foot bone last year shortly after joining at Corinthians. Neither of Mascherano’s substitutes (Bayern Munich’s Martín Demichelis and Inter’s Esteban Cambiasso) seem the right option to guard the backs of the offensive quartet most Argentines wish to see on field: Riquelme, Messi, Crespo and Pablo Aimar or Tevez.
But, apparently, foreign betting pundits consider injuries a minor factor in contrast to the apparent depth of the Argentine squad. Argentine fans, on the other hands, are likely to put their money on arch-rivals Brazil.