By Gregory Sica, SI.com
Argentines wonder when World Player of the Year Lionel Messi will perform for his national team the way he does while at FC Barcelona.
Over the next four months, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Argentina. Click here for the full archive.
Despite a devastating World Cup qualifying campaign in which it won only eight of 18 matches, Argentina is deep and talented at every position. Its greatest strength is easily its attack, where FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi is the clear standout. Messi was in extraordinary form in leading Barcelona to a record-breaking six titles in 2009, which included the UEFA Champions League, the Club World Cup and Spain's La Liga.
However, Messi's form with the national team has been a different story. The 22-year-old hasn't been a fraction of the player he is with Barcelona and has been heavily criticized. La Pulga ("the flea") is more than aware that he has underachieved for Argentina, but his global reputation means he will have no choice but to get it right at the World Cup.
With so many attacking options, Diego Maradona will aim to find the ideal blend right in time for Argentina's World Cup opener against Nigeria. During qualifying, the Argentine legend reshuffled his team several times and finally found the perfect attacking partner for Messi in Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín. But with the deep pool of talent in Argentina's attack, Higuaín has to be on top of his game to get the starting nod. He's competing in a depth chart that includes big names such as Sergio Agüero, Carlos Tévez and Diego Milito, just to name a few.
Liverpool star Javier Mascherano will wear the captain's armband in South Africa, but 34-year-old playmaker Juan Sebastián Verón will coach the side on the field. After missing out on the '06 World Cup -- then coach José Pekerman preferred Juan Román Riquelme to fill the playmaker role -- "La Brujita" will take part in his third World Cup and, in the absence of Riquelme (who retired from the national team after a dispute with Maradona), will be expected to be Argentina's main link between midfield and attack. Like a fine wine, Verón seems to get better with age, and the two-time South American Footballer of the Year will be responsible for orchestrating Argentina's best attacking moves in South Africa. His influence likely will determine the impact made by Messi.
What to watch for
Of the 32 teams descending on South Africa, Argentina seems to be the one with the most extensive list of problems. It may be blessed with immense talent, but under Maradona, Argentina has struggled to find any kind of consistency. Since being appointed the coach, Maradona has yet to find a game plan that works consistently or recaptures the magic "El Diez" conjured as a player. Worse, Maradona still hasn't found the right lineup -- by the close of '09, he had rotated through 72 players over 15 matches, adding further insecurity to a team that already appears to have lost the plot.
The common feeling among Argentines is that la Albiceleste will bow out in the early stages of the tournament. Even if Maradona's squad is undoubtedly one of the best in the world, there are certain factors that play against it: low morale and internal conflict. With so many egos in the same locker room, the appointment of the mercurial Maradona may not have been the best choice.
That said, Argentina won both its World Cup titles after entering the tournament with similar struggles. If Maradona can get his parade of stars clicking and get the most out of Messi, Argentina has the talent to win its third title. That is, as long as its underachieving history -- and its own coach -- don't work against it.
Key match in group stage
June 12 vs. Nigeria. Argentina has history against Nigeria in the World Cup (beating the Super Eagles in the group stage in '94 and '02) and will be looking to get the win in an intriguing group opener. With so much pressure fixated on Maradona and his troops, a victory would settle some early nerves. A loss, however, would bring back bad memories of first-round elimination.
Celebrity scouting report: Manu Ginóbili*
All the criticism Maradona is getting, I'm not sure it's fair. I'm a professional athlete, and I know that when people on the outside who don't really know what's going on talk, they usually don't get it right. I don't know anything about how they practice and what they're doing -- just like most people don't -- so I'm not going to speculate whether he's the right or wrong guy. ... This team is going to depend on Messi a lot. Everyone is expecting him to do for us what he does for Barcelona. That's not quite happening, but we need to be patient. There's a lot of pressure in soccer, even more than in the NBA. We've got to let Messi do his thing. ... We didn't look brilliant that much in qualifying, but obviously, there's a lot of potential. We have some of the best talent in the world. And I say some -- we're not better than Brazil. We're just a great team, a contender, that hasn't been playing together that well. I believe all we really need is one game where everything goes right, and we'll have the opportunity to click. Then again, there's always one favorite that goes out early. I hope we're not it.
*The San Antonio Spurs guard is from Bahía Blanca, Argentina. As told to Jonah Freedman.