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Who will partner Messi in attack?


Is the best form of defense a good offense? While Argentina's greatest concern ahead of the 2010 World Cup continues to be its vulnerable defense, head coach Diego Maradona is more than aware that if his team wants to be a force in South Africa, it needs to take full advantage of the abundance of talent it has up front.

Argentina boasts arguably the best attack in the world. But while Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi is a lock to feature in Argentina's front line at the World Cup, his attacking partner has yet to be decided. After a devastating qualifying campaign -- Argentina only assured itself of qualification on the final day -- Maradona came to the conclusion that the best way to pick up results was by bolstering his attack. For that to happen, it's essential Argentina gets the most out of Messi, and the only way to do that is to find him a complementary strike partner.

Maradona called up 94 different players since the beginning of his regime 14 months ago, but he knows the time has come when he must make important decisions. For now, it appears Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuaín will get the nod to partner Messi. But the likes of Diego Milito, Carlos Tévez and SergioAgüero aren't far behind.

When Maradona finalizes his 23-man roster for South Africa (so far he has confirmed only Messi, Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastián Verón), there will only be enough room for six strikers at most. That means the former Argentina legend will have a headache or two before naming his final squad. Unfortunately, several talented players will miss out.

Here are the top 10 candidates vying for a place in Argentina's attack, in descending order of their likelihood of lining up next to Messi when Argentina opens its World Cup against Nigeria on June 12:

Higuaín: The Madrid hit-man has transformed himself into one of the deadliest strikers in Europe over the past two years. "Pipita" was overlooked by Maradona throughout qualifying (many believed there was personal conflict between the two), but when he finally received his first official national team call-up against Peru in October, he took full advantage of it by scoring Argentina's opening goal. Higuaín is a class act, and has all of the necessary ingredients to complement Messi's game, not only because of his 6-foot-2 frame, but because he's also quick on his feet.

Milito: Few players possess Milito's immaculate shooting accuracy. With that unique talent, he's expected to fight Higuaín all the way for the opportunity to play alongside Messi. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself, and even if he has preferred to keep a low profile throughout his career, moving to a club like Inter Milan makes it almost impossible to stay out of the spotlight. But despite the increased pressure, Milito has continued to perform -- as of last weekend's win over AC Milan, he leads Serie A with 13 goals.

Tévez: After a difficult period at Manchester United -- where he was presented with limited opportunities by Sir Alex Ferguson -- Tévez's career has been re-ignited at crosstown rival Manchester City. In recent weeks, "Carlitos" has been in electrifying form, and proved his worth with a double over his former club in the first leg of the Carling Cup semifinals last week. Even if Tévez struggled to make an impact with Argentina in the World Cup qualifiers -- he was generally a non-factor -- Maradona is well aware of his qualities, and prefers his aggressive approach to that of many of Argentina's other top marksmen.

Agüero: That Agüero is Maradona's son-in-law doesn't do him any favors -- in fact, it gives the coach more reason to be more critical of the player (both on and off the field). There's no question Agüero is one of the most exciting talents in Europe, but there are two factors that play against him: inconsistency and his Messi-like tendency to be one player for his club and a completely different player for his country (even if he scored four goals in qualifying).

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Agüero, who partnered Messi in the attack as Argentina claimed the gold medal at the '08 Summer Olympics, is blessed with tremendous talent -- more so than many of his teammates -- but needs to demonstrate the necessary hunger to warrant a World Cup place, and possibly even a starting role. Narrowly missing out on a place in Argentina's Germany '06 squad couldn't be a greater motivation for "Kun."

Lisandro López: Now with Lyon, "Licha" picked up where left off during his prolific four-year stay at FC Porto, both scoring goals and stretching defenses. Still, López continues to be overlooked by a stubborn Maradona. He was rarely provided with a chance to prove his worth during qualifying, and knows he faces a race against time to make Argentina's 23-man squad. In the next few months, López has no choice but to score as many goals as possible for Lyon. That's the only way to seduce Maradona.

Martín Palermo: Maradona surprised everyone by presenting the 36-year-old with an opportunity to return to the national team last year after a 10-year absence. (Palermo hadn't played for Argentina since the '99 Copa América, where he'll always be remembered for missing three penalty kicks in a match against Colombia). But Maradona's gamble was worthwhile, as Palermo came off the bench to score Argentina's last-gasp winner in a crucial qualifier against Peru. Had Palermo not scored the goal, Argentina could have missed out on the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

That goal further verified that Palermo is one of the most prolific strikers in Argentine soccer history, and even if he decided to play most part of his career in his homeland with Boca Juniors, few players can match his achievements. The injury-prone Palermo performed poorly for Boca last year -- at least by his high standards -- but still managed 19 goals.

Ezequiel Lavezzi: Although not as popular as some of Argentina's top strikers, Lavezzi is a player with immense potential, but like many of his fellow countrymen, has failed to demonstrate that with the national team. With Napoli, it has been a completely different story -- Lavezzi has been on top of his game this season with a number of impressive performances. Maradona is very fond of the former San Lorenzo star, but knows that he has to begin to score goals (even if he prefers to play on the flanks) on a more frequent basis to warrant a World Cup place.

Gonzalo Bergessio: After performing at a high level with San Lorenzo for two years, Bergessio last year decided the best way to improve his chances with the national team was to prove himself in Europe. Despite attracting the interest of AC Milan, Bergessio opted for a less lucrative move to Saint-Etienne of France, a club where he has been provided with regular playing time. The 25-year-old has lived up to the expectation and, even if he isn't one of Maradona's personal favorites, still has an outside chance of featuring in South Africa.

Lucas Barrios: Relatively unknown in Argentina, the Borussia Dortmund striker is a scoring machine. Barrios made a name for himself with Colo-Colo in Chile before immigrating to Germany, where he found little difficulty acclimatizing himself to the chilly conditions. Few Argentines have succeeded in the Bundesliga in the past, but Barrios' 6-foot-2 frame has been a significant advantage given that most German teams consist of towering defenses.

Barrios' sensational form hasn't gone unnoticed by the Argentine press, but the fact that he has never represented his country before may be a good enough excuse for Maradona to discard him. Will he receive an opportunity to impress in any of the pre-World Cup friendlies?

Javier Saviola: The wily 5-foot-6 veteran's career has been rejuvenated at Benfica after a miserable spell with Real Madrid, and it seems he has returned to being the confident player he once was. Saviola continues to be a nippy striker with a keen eye for goal, but his chances of making Argentina's squad seem to be minimal. That Argentina already has a number of short strikers plays in his disadvantage.

What about some other players who have suited up for Maradona during his tenure? Rodrigo Palacio and Hernán Crespo -- both veterans of the '06 team -- were on target in Genoa's 2-0 win over Atalanta last Sunday, but it's unlikely Maradona will take them into consideration when naming his 23-man squad. Both have returned to form in recent weeks, and although exceptional players, are expected to watch from home this summer.

The same goes for Mauro Zárate, who hasn't gotten a look while his club, Lazio, is fighting against possible relegation from Serie A. Zárate is an incredibly skilled attacker who has demonstrated enough quality to earn himself a first senior national-team cap. He recently turned down the opportunity to represent the Azzurri in order to keep alive his chances of playing for the country of his birth.