WORLD CUP : ‘Fantastic’ Argentina tuning up for show

Buenos Aires, May 24 :

Calling his lineup “fantastic”, Argentine manager Jose Pekerman sounded a confident tone on Tuesday as his squad began its final stage of preparations for the World Cup. “I believe we are going to do very well in the World Cup,” Pekerman said a day after his squad gathered for the start of training at the Ezeiza training fields on the southwest outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Argentina had a second day of training on Tuesday with a 50-minute exhibition match scheduled for Wednesday against a youth side comprised mainly of Argentina’s under-20 national team at River Plate’s Monumental Stadium. Hours later, it will depart for Europe and a series of friendlies prior to the start of the World Cup.

Argentina was dumped from South Korea-Japan 2002 in the first round, its worst showing in decades at a World Cup. But Pekerman predicted his squad, which returns only a handful of veterans from four years ago, clearly was motivated.

“We are going to go into this together, united, as an important group. We are very much focused on that,” Pekerman said.

He also praised the field, including archrival Brazil — a five-time Cup champion — but refused to single out any as “favorites.” As a two-time World Cup champion, the nation anxiously is awaiting the World Cup amid hopes of erasing the memory of four years ago. And Pekerman declared his team has a “fantastic ability” to generate plays.

Argentina will get its first test on May 30 in a friendly against fellow World Cup qualifier Angola in Salerno.

Asked whether 18-year-old Barcelona forward Lionel Messi will be fit for the match, Pekerman said that would be “very difficult.” Messi, who injured his right thigh March 7 while playing for Barcelona and has not played since, finally has recovered, but he said his challenge now is to reclaim match fitness. “I’m already well, but I need to get back into physical shape,” he told reporters earlier this week.

Argentina opens on June 10 against Ivory Coast in Hamburg. Group C also includes Serbia-Montenegro and the Netherlands.

“This is one of the most competitively even groups,” Pekerman said, cautioning that the Netherlands has an “important” team with very strong, young players. He added that Serbia-Montenegro provided itself to be formidable in European qualifying while the Ivory Coast was one of the best in Africa.

Juan Roman Riquelme, who plays for Villarreal of Spain, echoed Pekerman’s optimism. “We have high hopes that this will go well. We will fight and go as far as this takes us,” Riquelme said. Forward Javier Saviola, who plays for Spanish side Valencia, said the key would be to win the very first game. “After that, every game will be difficult,” he said.

A veteran of the 1998 and 2002 tournaments, Hernan Crespo, said he looked forward to yet another shot at the title. “I will be playing in my third tournament and this experience gives me a certain sense of tranquility,” said Crespo, who plays for Chelsea of England. “But with the experience comes greater responsibility.”