Maradona's Argentina have much to prove

By Rex Gowar

In 2002, Argentina travelled to Asia as overwhelming favorites after a brilliant qualifying campaign but they flopped in Japan and left without getting out of their group.

Maradona, now their coach, likes to say that the path to South Africa is similar to the one that led to glory in Mexico and that he prefers to go as underdogs.

"I'm confident, otherwise I wouldn't be here (in charge)," Maradona told a television chat show hostess recently.

"Despite everything, I'm still here standing firm, we have a very good future," added Maradona, whose team's erratic qualifying campaign had fans and media fearing the worst.

What he has to prove in the finals, where they are drawn in Group B with Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, is that he can mold a fine generation of players into the team that failed to materialize during the qualifiers and only just scraped through.

Maradona's side have since lost 2-1 away to Spain in a friendly in Madrid in November, playing poorly. He evidently decided that far back to discard players such as Esteban Cambiasso and Fernando Gago, highly regarded in Europe, from the provisional World Cup squad of 30 he named this month.

A 1-0 win away to Germany in March gave him the certainty that he would start the World Cup with a back four made up of four central defenders.

In front of them, he has captain Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron in the middle with Jonas Gutierrez and Angel Di Maria on the wings.

He believes that is the framework in which to allow Lionel Messi and his strike partner Gonzalo "Pipa" Higuain, or Carlos Tevez, to flourish.

"I ask Lio and Pipa to conserve their energy to attack our rivals and that Lio should never stay still...Messi is impossible to stop because he's so fast."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)