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The world's No. 1 flexes its muscles


If its 4-1 drubbing of Mexico was any indication of what's to follow, Argentina is a serious contender to win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. There's no doubt the Argentines will qualify for the tournament, but what's more important at this stage is that Alfio Basile's side is playing like future world champions.

Argentina's demonstration against Mexico in San Diego on Wednesday was simply outstanding. Not only was it an emphatic victory against a potential World Cup opponent, but the Argentines seemed to understand each other as if they had been training together for much more than just a couple of days.

The U.S. should expect much of the same treatment when they clash with Argentina at Giants Stadium on Sunday in what will be the Argentines' final warm-up match before the restart of World Cup qualifying.

For years, Argentina has been producing an exciting brand of soccer that has been envied by the entire world. It has to do not only with the quality of its players -- namely European-based strikers Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez -- but also with the tactics adopted by their respective coaches.

Basile, who replaced José Pekerman as Argentina's coach in late '06, has assembled an extremely solid unit that is based on youth and experience. In the friendly victory over Mexico, he fielded a side that looks like it's the one that'll be featured in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Brazil in mid-June.

The only additions to Los Albicelestes will likely be those of Boca Juniors playmaker Juan Román Riquelme and Estudiantes de La Plata veteran Juan Sebastián Verón (two key figures of the national team).

Riquelme will provide Argentina with vision and creativity in the midfield. He is a skilful attacking player who is capable of unsettling any opposition and is arguably the most effective dead-ball specialist in the world at the moment (three of his four goals in the qualifiers have been free-kicks).

In recent weeks, Basile has confirmed Verón will return to the side, even though he hasn't made a single appearance for the national team since last year's Copa América final defeat to Brazil. But is he worth another call-up? "La Brujita" may be 33 years old, but he continues to be one of the stars of the Argentine First Division and the Estudiantes captain has been the main reason why his club still has a shot at the title with only two rounds to play.

Although there is still speculation linking Verón with a move to MLS, he is determined to participate in what would be a third World Cup, and the chances of this becoming reality would be much greater if he maintains a consistent level in the Argentine league. His intelligence could prove all the difference for an Argentina side that always seems to lose its head at the final hurdle.

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Riquelme and Verón should reinforce Argentina, but Manchester United ace Tévez will miss both qualifiers. The menacing striker is suspended for the match with Ecuador and will be rested for the vital clash with Brazil because of accumulated fatigue. "Carlitos" is evidently tired after a long season with United, where he played a key role in the club's sensational campaign where it lifted both the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League crowns.

But even if the No. 1-ranked team in the world is without Tévez, Basile has more than enough options to choose from to select an equally strong side. He could either bulk up his midfield or include another of the many strikers he has at his disposal. The likes of Julio Cruz of Inter Milan and Lisandro López of FC Porto have shown that they are capable of performing, after having won league titles with their European clubs last season.

But despite the abundance of talent in the squad, and the fact that Argentina continues to play breathtaking soccer, what stands in its way is the pressure factor. Whenever the two-time World Cup winners enter the field -- whether that be for a World Cup qualifier, a Copa América match or even a friendly -- they're expected to win, usually quite comprehensively.

Anything less than a victory stirs serious debate amongst the local press who, despite knowing that Argentina hasn't lifted a senior international trophy since '93, continue to be as demanding as ever.

When Argentina was thrashed 3-0 by Brazil in the Copa América final last year, the press saw this as a major setback, mainly because Argentina was clearly the best team in the tournament right until the decider. But it ended up being ripped apart by a Brazil side that was missing its two most influential players, Kaká and Ronaldinho.

Argentina will have an opportunity to put this defeat behind it when it faces Brazil in Belo Horizonte on Jun. 18 in a crucial World Cup qualifier. A positive result here would be essential for the confidence of the side.

Still, Argentina isn't as underachieving as some other world powers, such as England or Spain -- teams that continue to struggle on the international stage despite having the two most important leagues in the world. The situation with Argentina is quite different: It has no trouble overcoming equally strong teams and it regularly reaches decisive instances of major competitions. But what has limited its success to youth titles is its lack of temperament.

"El Coco" Basile understands Argentina has lacked a winning mentality in recent years, and in order to change that, he has looked to the success of Boca Juniors. He regards the six-time Copa Libertadores champions as being an institution that only produces "true winners," and is hoping Boca transmits this attitude to the national team.

For Argentina's qualifier against Colombia last November, Basile fielded five players in his starting 11 who have played for Boca at some point in their careers. All of these players have won important titles with the Buenos Aires giants, and with the club's current production line as effective as ever, more of this should follow in the future.

Argentina may have all the necessary ingredients to cruise into the '10 World Cup, but if it wants to make its mark on the world stage, and possibly win its third title, it has to begin to put its past failures behind it. Los Albicelestes have confirmed their status as one of the most potent national teams in the world, but in order to claim their first major title in almost two decades, they must keep their head. The World Cup is clearly in Argentina's reach.