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Jun 7, 2008

Argentina in fine-tuning mode ahead of U.S. game

Sven-Goran Eriksson looked like a coach who had landed in the wrong country. While Argentina was sailing past Mexico Wednesday night in San Diego, television cameras honed in on close-ups of Eriksson, who had been brought in to observe his new team. And he did not look happy as the Tricolores absorbed a 4-1 loss which could have been much worse.

Meanwhile, Argentina's Alfio "Coco" Basile was raving about his "kids" -- Sergio "Kun" Aguero and Lionel Messi. "They always astonish me, because they invent something new," Basile said.

No telling how Bob Bradley is feeling about Argentina's "pichones." But when the U.S. meets Argentina on Sunday night, Bradley will have neither the pleasure of feeling pleasantly astonished like Basile, nor the luxury of sitting catatonically inscrutable like Eriksson.

The last time Argentina was capturing imaginations at this level might have been during the 1994 World Cup. The coach then was Basile. FIFA broke up the party by suspending Diego Maradona because of a failed drug test following a victory over Nigeria in Foxboro. But it is not going to be easy to disrupt the Argentines when they return to the Northeast at Giants Stadium on Sunday.

Argentina is preparing for World Cup qualifiers, and these friendlies are mere warmups. But the Argentinians do not need much more readiness for games against Ecuador in Buenos Aires on June 14 and Brazil in Belo Horizonte on July 18. They received a good test of quickness and technique from the Mexicans. Now, they will get physicality from the U.S.

Basile was not in favor of these games, because they are not presenting conditions similar to what Argentina will face in qualifiers. Plus, it does not make much sense for players to be making such long flights north of the equator when they should be preparing closer to home, south of the equator.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Argentina
Sunday
Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

In any case, Argentina appears ready to make a run for the 2010 World Cup. The Argentines have been victims of either a perceived FIFA vendetta (a case could be made for both the '90 and '94 eliminations), bad luck (2002), or self-destruction by coaching incompetence (2006).

The days of the FIFA-Maradona feud are in the past, and Basile -- unlike Jose Pekerman -- is more than willing to use the youngsters, "Los Enanos del Gol," according to Clarin. Aguero and Messi might be small, but this Argentina team has large potential.

Basile has set the team up in an attacking alignment, a 3-4-1-2 which allows Messi the freedom to roam behind Aguero and Julio Cruz. With Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano cleaning things up behind Messi, wings Maxi Rodriguez and Javier Zanetti can join in the fun, as well.

How Argentina expected to succeed without Zanetti at Germany '06 is still baffling. Zanetti is Inter's "Il Capitano," leading the club to a third successive Serie A title this year. And he is "El Pupi" to his countrymen, because of the charity group he runs for children. You don't leave model citizens/players at home during the World Cup.

Argentina ended up with Fabricio Coloccini playing in Zanetti's place in the World Cup, and Germany took advantage.

Basile, though, has resurrected Coloccini. Though Coloccini should be more vulnerable in a three-man back line than in a four-back setup, he seemed capable against Mexico. But Gabriel Heinze will likely return to the left back slot, with Martin Demichelis in the middle and Nicolas Burdisso on the right, against the U.S.

Argentina does have its 20-year-old "enanos," Aguero (5-foot-8) and Messi (5-7), plus the 23-year-old Mascherano. And Carlos Tevez (5-6), should return for qualifiers but remarkably, he could be on the bench.

The rest of the team is physically-imposing, strong and swift.

Cruz provides a point of reference up front, both because of his height and his movement. Gago brings strength to the midfield and can drop deep to effectively give the Argentines a four-man back line. Burdisso and Heinze are agile and combative, difficult to outmaneuver, and Dimichelis takes care of the high balls.

The best way for the U.S. to take on Argentina might be to go the direct route; simply bypass the midfield, which would neutralize the ability of Gago and Mascherano to win balls and start the transition game. The U.S. does not figure to have much possession against Argentina, just as it didn't control the ball against Spain. The U.S. would do well to copy the German's '06 plan; play direct, attack the wings, and overpower the Argentines, if possible.

Basile will let the kids out to play for an hour, or so. Then it will be time to come in and rest. Argentina is in fine-tuning mode. With four points in the next two matches, it could overtake Paraguay for the lead one-third of the way through South American qualifying. This is Argentina's party. But, the real celebrations are a couple years away.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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