Thursday, February 22, 2024

All set for Messi magic Friday

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Argentina captain L. Messi during a practice session at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Thursday evening. (PTI)

Kolkata: An Indian history is only hours away from the making, with the first ever FIFA Official International Friendly in the country set to kick off Friday featuring superstar Lionel Messi-led star-studded Argentina and a resurgent Venezuela here.

The match, being played at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan (YBK) – the world’s second largest stadium by capacity, is one of the most high profile to have been staged in the sub-continent. It will also end India?s soccer crazy city Kolkata?s wait to see the prince of football in action.

The match to be played under floodlights has several other firsts. It would mark the beginning of the mesmerizing Messi’s stint as regular national captain and Alejandro Sabella’s reign as coach of the Argentine side.

Messi, who arrived here early Wednesday amid delirious cheers from two thousand soccer fans and has been the centre of all attraction ever since, would be the highest rated footballer to play in India in peak form.

History and star power make Argentina overwhelming favourites.

For two-time World Cup champions Argentina anything less than the title in the big tournament triggers deep resentment at home. Venezuela are still awaiting their first ever appearance in the final stage of the World Cup.

Since 1967, the two sides have clashed 17 times, with Argentina winning on every occasion.

In FIFA listings, Argentina are 9th, while Venezuela stand 44th.

But Venezuela could take heart from their recent performance in the Copa America where they finished fourth. Argentina went out of contention in the quarter final.

Venezuela, which 12 years ago lagged even below India in the FIFA rankings, have risen like the proverbial Phoenix to become a major South American footballing nation.

The Venezuela soccer team, which was 110th in the 1999 FIFA rankings – four rungs below India – has since then vastly improved.

The rise of the ‘La Vinotinto’ or ‘The Burgundy’ as the team is fondly called because of its jersey colour, is largely attributed to the massive infrastructural investment the country made to host the Copa America in 2007.

Despite the hype around Lionel Messi?s side, which seems to have completely overshadowed Venezuela, Argentina’s versatile defender Pablo Zabaleta concedes it would be a tough outing.

It’s going to be a very tough match. Venezuela are a very good team,? says the Manchester City player.

Venezuelan coach Cesar Farias concedes that the individual brilliance of the Argentines could put to test his side?s resilience.

“You can’t hide the fact that Messi is a great player. But football is a team game, we have been working to be a cohesive unit. We have our attention on the strengths of Argentina. But we are focussing more on our strengths.”

The tie assumes more importance as the two sides are slated to clash in the World Cup qualifiers Oct 14 and thus the two coaches would do well to use the match to gauge each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Sabella has already said the game would kick start his side’s campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, for which he has plans to develop a new team around Messi.

Besides Messi, Argentina has the firepower of Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, and that would be a big plus if the Venezuelans resort to tight manmarking for world footballer of the year Messi.

In the defence – which has often been Argentina?s weak ling – they have Zabaleta and Nicolas Burdisso though Javier Zanetti?s absence could be felt.

But for the all-excited spectators the Salt Lake Stadium would be in the grip of a Messi mania . (IANS)

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