Great expectations of Messi

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Four-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi enters the World Cup fray on Sunday. Photo: Ronald Martinez

 

Rio de Janeiro - Lionel Messi enters the World Cup fray on Sunday, hoping he can at last add a major team title to all the individual honours he has accrued over the years.

But, crucially, he needs to help Argentina get off to a good start against World Cup debutants Bosnia-Hercegovina.

France also set out on what is a voyage of redemption, to erase the shameful memory of the 2010 finals, as they face a tough physical battle aginst minnows Honduras.

Both sides will have taken note that, despite being clear favourites for their respective matches, the tournament so far has seen little respect for reputations.

The Dutch dismantling of title holders Spain on Friday was followed by Costa Rica's extraordinary comeback to defeat Copa America champions and two-time world Cup winners Uurugay 3-1 on Saturday.

Another team of former champions, England, will also be licking their wounds and trying to rebuild morale after a 2-1 defeat to a streetwise and more experienced Italy on Saturday, ahead of Thursday's match with Uruguay, where defeat for either side would all but consign them to an early flight home.

Japan, too, face an uphill task to get their campaign back on an even keel after defeat to Ivory Coast with coach Alberto Zaccheroni admitting that they have their “backs against the wall”.

However, for the immediate future, all eyes will be on Barcelona superstar Messi to see if the strategy implemented by coach Alejandro Sabella, when he took over in 2011, of giving him freedom to roam will pay off with the biggest prize of all.

Messi gets the chance to show off his skills at the magnificent Maracana Stadium against a solid Bosnian side.

Argentina have not reached the semi-finals since 1990. But with an attack force made up of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria, they are one of the favourites this time, not far behind arch-rivals and hosts Brazil.

Sabella had a doubt over Napoli striker Higuain, who has been carrying an ankle injury for the past month, and Paris Saint-Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi has been taking a leading stand-in role in training sessions.

Thousands of expectant Argentina fans have flooded Rio de Janeiro prior to the game, all confident that this time their side will lift the trophy for the third time.

“This is our first visit to Rio. The next one will be on July 13 for the final,” said 35-year-old River Plate fan Fernando.

“Coming to a beautiful city like Rio de Janeiro and being able to join Argentina in the Maracana in their first World Cup match is something special.”

France, for their part, have up to now been, in public at least, a much happier and united group under coach and 1998 World Cup winning skipper Didier Deschamps than under Raymond Domenech four years ago.

However, Deschamps, who has been deprived of his most creative player in Franck Ribery for the finals because of a back injury, acknowledges the crucial ingredient to a happy camp is victory.

“A team that wins is always as a rule loved. I have never seen a side that won not be loved,” he told French daily Le Monde in May.

The French side, though, are historically notoriously slow starters -they haven't won their first match at a World Cup finals since 1998 -while Honduras have yet to win a game on their previous two appearances.

It is not that that is exercising Deschamps mind so much as the Central Americans' reputation for their muscular style which led England captain Steve Gerrard to comment after a 0-0 draw in a friendly last weekend that their tackling was “horrific”.

Honduran coach Luis Fernando Suarez, though, said they had nothing to be ashamed of.

“Our attitude is to face the games with character, with hunger, because we are looking as a team to achieve our goals. That is our attitude and I think that is a good thing,” he said.

France will go into their game already knowing what the other favourites to progress from the group Switzerland have done.

They take on Ecuador in the first match of the day in what is their veteran coach Ottmer Hitzfeld's final tournament before he brings down the curtain on a superb career. - Sapa-AFP


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