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Argentina await acid test
The number 13 can be an indicator of good times and bad - depending on where you are in the world. So as Argentina prepare for their 13th FIFA World Cup finals appearance, coach Marcelo Bielsa must be wondering exactly what to expect from next summer's trip to Korea/Japan.
On paper, the trainer should have few worries as the "Albiceleste" chase a third victory in the competition; on grass, too, the picture looks bright after Argentina were emphatic winners of the South American qualifying section.
Colombia coach Francisco Maturana said of the then runaway group leaders: "It is hell playing against Argentina." Maturana's assessment is understandable when you consider the players at Bielsa's disposal: Batistuta (Roma, Italy), Crespo (Lazio, Italy), Veron (Manchester United, England), Gonzalez (Valencia, Spain), Samuel (Roma, Italy), Gallardo (Monaco, France), Ayala (Valencia, Spain), Zanetti (Inter Milan, Italy), Ortega (River Plate), and Sorin (Cruzeiro, Brazil).
To these established stars you can add 10 other names, of players whose stock may be less but whose abilities are just as great. Playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, the darling of Boca Juniors, is one. Then there are talented tyros Javier Saviola, now with Barcelona, and Andres D'Alessandro from River Plate.
Not to forget Villarreal centre-forward Martin Palermo, who is surely worth another go at international level.
Whatever the personnel, those who slotted into Bielsa's 3-3-2-2 system produced 13 wins and four draws from 18 matches in the 2000-01 Conmebol tournament. And the only question is whether they can replicate that success seven or eight months down the line in the Far East.
That is the great unknown, for a FIFA World Cup-winning coach needs his players to hit form at the same time, and within the same limited time frame. More certain is the fact that if Argentina steer clear of injuries, they will be among the favourites to lift the trophy on June 30.
Whether you would rank them above France or England is a moot point, and Spain, Italy, Russia and Brazil will also have their say.
The likes of Japan, Croatia, Paraguay, Nigeria and the United States are all potential Davids too, so Argentina cannot afford to rest on their laurels. For Bielsa and Co the hard work starts here.
Significant past players:
Claudio Caniggia, Oscar Ruggeri, Sergio Goicochea, Diego Maradona, Mario Kempes, Ubaldo Fillol, Daniel Passarella, Guillermo Stabile
-- FIFA World Cup winners 1978, 1986, runners-up 1930, 1990
-- Copa America winners 1921, 1925, 1927, 1929, 1937, 1941, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1955, 1957, 1959, 1991, 1993
-- Olympic silver medallists 1926, 1996
-- FIFA World Youth Championship winners 1979, 1995, 1997, 2001
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