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Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella's challenge at the World Cup is as simple as it is daunting: Make the world's best player play at his best.
Lionel Messi has been brilliant for Barcelona, winning everything there is to win at club level. But he hasn't looked so good for Argentina's national team, failing to score a single goal in the last two major tournaments.
But that was before Sabella.
The 59-year-old Sabella seems to click better with Argentina's superstar than national team coaches before him. Messi has performed consistently for Argentina since Sabella took charge in 2011, scoring 10 times in 14 matches during World Cup qualifying — more than quarter of his total tally since his Argentina debut in 2005.
Sabella immediately made Messi captain and placed him in the middle or on the right flank of a three-man attack with Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Now Sabella can only hope that his top player arrives free of the injuries that kept him sidelined during the end of 2013.
"Messi is the best player in the world and any team will feel the difference without such a player," Sabella said after a Messi-less Argentina drew 0-0 with Ecuador in a Nov. 15 friendly. "When Messi is not there, the other players feel that, but they also know they must be strong and try to make up (for his absence)."
Sabella appears to have restored calm to a team that went through stormy times with Diego Maradona at the helm. Maradona's odd coaching style, which included hugging and kissing his players, didn't seem to bring out the best in Messi.
"The Flea" left the 2010 World Cup scoreless and humiliated as Argentina lost to Germany 4-0 in the quarterfinals.
A year later, under coach Sergio Batista, Messi again failed to score in regulation time as Argentina hosted the Copa America, though he had several assists and scored a penalty in a quarterfinal shootout that Argentina lost to Uruguay.
After a playing career that included stints with Sheffield United and Leeds, Sabella served as assistant to Daniel Pasarella at a number of clubs and national teams, including Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. Sabella took over Estudiantes in 2009 — his first job as head coach — and led the Argentine club to the Copa Libertadores title.
He had been expected to coach Al Jazira in the United Arab Emirates when he was suddenly tapped to replace Batista in 2011.
Sabella told FIFA.com that Argentina's chances are good with the "best player in the world" on the team and the World Cup being played in Brazil, which he described as the "house" next door.
"The only problem," Sabella said, "is that that house is owned by the five-time world champions."
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