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2014 World Cup

1 GER FINAL (ET) ARG 0
JULY 13 | RIO DE JANEIRO
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World Cup Group F Preview: Messi paces Argentina, but danger lurks

By Jerry Hinnen | CBSSports.com

Lionel Messi hopes to add a Golden Boot to his collection of Ballon d'Ors. (USATSI)
Lionel Messi hopes to add a Golden Boot to his collection of Ballon d'Ors. (USATSI)

More World Cup: Group Previews | World Cup Roundup | Latest news & notes

Is it now or never for Lionel Messi?

The world's greatest player (give or take a certain photogenic Portuguese winger) has never quite been for Argentina the same 5-foot-7 force of nature he's been for Barcelona, scoring 37 times in his 83 appearances for the Albiceleste -- a strike rate that nearly any other forward in the world would envy, but that for a player of Messi's extraterrestrial talents nonetheless feels pedestrian. More troubling was Messi's helplessness as his side was brushed aside 4-0 by Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals, and then eliminated on penalties by Uruguay in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Copa America (a tournament in which Messi failed to score at all). At one point, Messi had failed to score in 16 consecutive competitive matches for his home country.

The post-2011 Copa appointment of Alejandro Sabella as Argentina's coach -- and his naming Messi the team's permanent captain -- appears to have done wonders for his megastar's international form, with Messi's 10 goals taking his team to the top of the cutthroat CONMEBOL qualifying table. But the World Cup is a different animal, and with Messi set to turn 30 before Russia 2018, Brazil arguably represents his last best opportunity to shed the "doesn't perform for his country" label once and for all. There's a good chance his team will need Messi to be at his unstoppable best, too; though Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran are far from the toughest group-stage opponents Argentina could have drawn, they offer plenty enough attacking firepower to trouble a sometimes-shaky Argentinean defense.

Besides, just getting out of the group stage isn't enough for a country that's lifted the trophy twice and lost two other World Cup finals, especially after somehow failing to advance past the quarterfinals in any of the past five World Cups. If he finds the net and powers Argentina back into true title contention, Messi will finally be able to live with the "Maradona's second coming" tag that's shadowed him his entire career; if he doesn't, it's fair to wonder if he ever will.

The teams

Argentina: While Messi is far and away the biggest star and biggest storyline in Group F, it's not as if he won't have all the attacking help he could ask for and then some. Between fellow strikers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain and midfielder Angel Di Maria, the Albiceleste can offer up an quartet of offensive players the equal -- if not the better -- of any team's in the world. But major questions remain concerning the team's defense, where right back Pablo Zabaleta is the only marquee name in a four-man unit, and starting goalkeeper Sergio Romero could be off-form after a season spent mostly on the bench for Monaco.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Bosnians are making their first-ever World Cup appearance, and as anyone who caught their wild 4-3 loss to the USA in August can attest, their matches shouldn't lack for excitement. Coach Safet Susic is a former striker who isn't big on tactical caution, and in Manchester City's prolific Edin Dzeko and Stuttgart's Vedad Ibisevic, he has a pair of world-class forwards who can capitalize on his team's adventurous philosophy. Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is one of the Premier League's best and is capable of stealing a match single-handedly, too; if he, Dzeko and talented young playmaker Miralem Pjanic are all on top of their game, the knockout stage will beckon.

Nigeria: After winning the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and breezing through qualifying, the Super Eagles appear to have their best squad since the team's thrilling 1990s heyday. Striker Emmanuel Emenike of Fenerbache and Liverpool loanee winger Victor Moses provide the attacking thrust, while goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama is widely considered Africa's best, announcing himself on the world stage with a fabulous performance against Argentina in South Africa four years ago. (Forgive the Nigerians if they'd have preferred seeing anyone other than Argentina in their group draw; the two nations have shared a group in three of Nigeria's four all-time World Cup appearances, with the South Americans winning all three meetings.) The team's weakness is in midfield, where defensive stalwart John Obi Mikel could be left with a burden too heavy for even him to carry.

Iran: On paper, the Iranians are the easy choice for fourth in Group F and one of the most talent-deficient teams in the tournament, with few players established outside Iran's domestic league. But under veteran coach Carlos Quieroz -- the former Real Madrid and Portugal national team boss, who frankly seems a little overqualified for this gig -- Iran has been tactically sound and pulled off one of the shocks of World Cup qualifiying, beating South Korea 1-0 on the road to win their Asian qualifying group. Still, if Iran wants any chance of advancing out of the group, it will need a titanic performance from midfield talisman Javad Nekounam (137 caps) and attacking duo Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad, who play for London clubs Fulham and Charlton, respectively.

The key players

Angel di Maria: The good: after emerging as a central playmaking figure for Real Madrid late in the 2013-2014 season -- and helping them to the Champions League final -- the former winger firmly established himself as one of the most versatile and most deadly attacking players in the world. The bad: as part of Argentina's three-man midfield, with Messi, Aguero and Higuain already playing in advanced positions ahead of him (and inexperienced left back Marcos Rojo likely behind him), di Maria can't afford to shirk his defensive duties, either. As with Argentina as a whole, di Maria finding the right balance between pushing forward and hanging back could prove critical.

Emir Spahic: The 33-year-old captain and Bayer Leverkusen center back has the somewhat thankless task of anchoring a Bosnian defense occasionally hung out to dry by its gung ho midfield. But after shepherding the team to its first-ever World Cup berth in what was likely his final opportunity, it's doubtful he minds. Much.

John Obi Mikel: Hey, it's another key defensive-minded player responsible for putting out the fires left behind by a team far more flush with attacking talent than dependable defenders. Thankfully for Mikel, Nigeria won't play quite as aggressive a style as Argentina or Bosnia, but his ability to shield the back four might still be the only thing to prevent an all-out assault on Enyeama's goal. Mikel didn't have much of a season for Chelsea, but he should still shine as the Super Eagles' best outfield player.

Reza Ghoochannejhad: It speaks to the shallowness of the Iranian talent pool that a striker struggling to see the field for English second tier-side Charlton could join up and immediately become something of a national team savior. But that's not to take anything away from the player nicknamed "Gucci," whose nine goals in only 11 appearances for Iran -- including the game-winner in the 1-0 win at Korea that reserved the team's spot in Brazil -- show that he can't be taken lightly on Team Melli's swift counterattack.

How the group should play out

With Messi and Aguero over their injury issues, di Maria and Higuain in top form, and Javier Mascherano still prowling the midfield behind them, it's tough to see any of the other three teams in Group F -- again, none of whom are exactly known for lockdown defenses -- standing up to Argentina's onslaught. Expect the top seed to top the group, draw Ecuador in the Round of 16, and set its sights on a quarterfinal showdown against Portugal or Belgium.

The second place spot should come down to either Bosnia or Nigeria, and could be decided by which team can put up the better result against likely also-rans Iran. Quieroz's team will play conservatively and force opponents to break them down -- a situation in which the likes of a set-piece monster like Dzeko and an incisive playmaker like Pjanic are greater assets than what Nigeria will bring to the table.

The counter-argument is that the Super Eagles have the advantage of playing Argentina last, by which point Sabella's team could have already clinched top spot and be resting its best players. Even so, the guess here is that a win over Iran in its final game should be enough to see Bosnia through.

Group F Predictions
Prediction
Jason
La Canfora
Jeff
Borzello
Tom
Fornelli
Evan
Hilbert
Jerry
Hinnen
Mike
Singer
1st
Argentina
Argentina
Argentina
Argentina
Argentina
Argentina
2nd
Nigeria
Bosnia-
Herzegovina
Bosnia-
Herzegovina
Bosnia-
Herzegovina
Bosnia-
Herzegovina
Bosnia-
Herzegovina
3rd
Bosnia-
Herzegovina
Nigeria
Nigeria
Nigeria
Nigeria
Nigeria
4th
Iran
Iran
Iran
Iran
Iran
Iran
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