Agüero's World Cup chances ride on his return to form

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If his incredible two-goal display against Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday was any indication, Atlético Madrid superstar SergioAgüero could be on the path to recovery after a frustrating beginning to the 2009-10 season.

"Kun" entered the field in the second half and made an instant impact, firing Atlético ahead with a spectacular volley that will surely be in the running for goal of the year. The Argentine international continued to dazzle Chelsea with his fancy footwork and acceleration, but was helpless as Chelsea (one of several clubs after his signature) turned the game on its head with two goals from DidierDrogba in the span of six minutes.

But Agüero appeared, once again, in second-half injury time, rescuing Atlético a point with a brilliantly executed free kick. Still, it wasn't enough, as Atleti bowed out of the competition with two matches left in the group stage. Despite the early elimination, los Colchoneros will get the consolation prize of a spot in the Europa League with a victory over APOEL Nicosia on Nov. 25.

What's more important, however, is that Atlético could be boosted by the return to form of Agüero. The attacker scored 17 times in La Liga last season, helping his side to a top-four finish and a place in the Champions League. His attacking partnership with Uruguayan striker Diego Forlán accounted for 49 goals in Spain, making them the most lethal striking duo in Europe.

Agüero's five-star performance against Chelsea may come as somewhat of a relief for new coach Quique Sánchez Flores (whose side currently languishes in the relegation zone in the Spanish league), as Kun seemed to rediscover his form of last season.

As has been the case with many heavily hyped South Americans in the past, Agüero has been a shadow of his former self this season. Apart from his performance against Chelsea on Tuesday, the exciting attacker has failed to live up to his potential, which has led to heavy criticism from both the Spanish and Argentine press. Only 21, Agüero has yet to fully develop despite being considered one of the greatest talents in Europe.

Unfortunately for Agüero, his poor form has carried over to his national-team play, too. Though he's the son-in-law of Argentine legend and national-team coach Diego Maradona, Agüero isn't guaranteed an automatic place with the Argentina squad, and was even expected to be dropped for the crucial World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Uruguay last month after a disappointing showing against Paraguay a month earlier.

With the multiple options Maradona has in his attack, including world-class players like Lionel Messi, Carlos Tévez, Gonzalo Higuaín, Diego Milito, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lisandro López, Agüero can't afford to be off his game, especially with the 2010 World Cup just around the corner. Maradona will show no sympathy toward Agüero when selecting his squad next summer, which he made clear by overlooking his son-in-law for Argentina's final two qualifiers.

So what has been the cause of Agüero's struggles? The downfalls of Atlético and the Argentine national team play roles, but the pressure riding on Agüero is surely a major contributor. Since marrying Maradona's youngest daughter, Giannina, Agüero has been in the media spotlight, and the level of publicity only intensified with the birth of the couple's first child, Benjamín, last February. The Argentine press came to the wild conclusion that, with the impeccable genes of both Agüero and his grandfather, the newborn was already destined to become a soccer superstar in the future.

The added pressure that comes with being part of the Maradona clan gave Agüero more reason to go out and enjoy himself, but it also meant he was exposed to more media coverage than ever before. Just days after the baptism of his son, Agüero was spotted leaving a posh Buenos Aires nightclub at 5 a.m. with a blonde model (in the past, Agüero dated top Argentine models ElianaGuercio and Jesica Cirio). That led to accusations the striker was cheating on his wife, something that apparently wasn't to the liking of "El Diez."

According to some reports, Maradona was so annoyed with the attitude of Kun that he dropped him from the Argentina squad to face Ecuador in a key World Cup qualifier in Quito (even if it was quite clear that the player had suffered an injury in the win over Colombia days earlier).

But to verify claims, Agüero only started one of Argentina's next four matches, and was benched for the clash with archrival Brazil and missed the crucial qualifiers with Peru and Uruguay altogether. When he did start against Paraguay in Asunción in September, he was Argentina's worst player, and was substituted by Maradona early in the second half.

Still, it seems Maradona hasn't lost all faith in Agüero, as he named him to Argentina's strong squad to face Spain in a high-profile friendly match at the Vicente Calderón (home to Atlético Madrid) next week. Whether he starts that game is a different story.

First things first: Agüero will have the opportunity to impress Maradona when Atlético clashes with crosstown rival Real Madrid at the Vicente Calderón on Saturday. If Kun's performance is anything like the one against Chelsea, and if he sorts out his personal life to avoid further unwanted attention, he will surely return to Maradona's good books. His World Cup chances count on it.