Who will partner Messi in attack?
For Argentina to succeed at the World Cup, Lionel Messi needs attack partner
Gonzalo Higuaín appears to be choice for now, but hasn't had much experience
Diego Milito, Carlos Tévez, Sergio Agüero aren't far behind; others could work
Is the best form of defense a good offense? While Argentina's greatest concern ahead of the 2010 World Cup continues to be its vulnerable defense, head coach Diego Maradona is more than aware that if his team wants to be a force in South Africa, it needs to take full advantage of the abundance of talent it has up front.
Argentina boasts arguably the best attack in the world. But while Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi is a lock to feature in Argentina's front line at the World Cup, his attacking partner has yet to be decided. After a devastating qualifying campaign -- Argentina only assured itself of qualification on the final day -- Maradona came to the conclusion that the best way to pick up results was by bolstering his attack. For that to happen, it's essential Argentina gets the most out of Messi, and the only way to do that is to find him a complementary strike partner.
Maradona called up 94 different players since the beginning of his regime 14 months ago, but he knows the time has come when he must make important decisions. For now, it appears Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuaín will get the nod to partner Messi. But the likes of Diego Milito, Carlos Tévez and Sergio Agüero aren't far behind.
When Maradona finalizes his 23-man roster for South Africa (so far he has confirmed only Messi, Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastián Verón), there will only be enough room for six strikers at most. That means the former Argentina legend will have a headache or two before naming his final squad. Unfortunately, several talented players will miss out.
Here are the top 10 candidates vying for a place in Argentina's attack, in descending order of their likelihood of lining up next to Messi when Argentina opens its World Cup against Nigeria on June 12:
Higuaín: The Madrid hit-man has transformed himself into one of the deadliest strikers in Europe over the past two years. "Pipita" was overlooked by Maradona throughout qualifying (many believed there was personal conflict between the two), but when he finally received his first official national team call-up against Peru in October, he took full advantage of it by scoring Argentina's opening goal. Higuaín is a class act, and has all of the necessary ingredients to complement Messi's game, not only because of his 6-foot-2 frame, but because he's also quick on his feet.
Milito: Few players possess Milito's immaculate shooting accuracy. With that unique talent, he's expected to fight Higuaín all the way for the opportunity to play alongside Messi. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself, and even if he has preferred to keep a low profile throughout his career, moving to a club like Inter Milan makes it almost impossible to stay out of the spotlight. But despite the increased pressure, Milito has continued to perform -- as of last weekend's win over AC Milan, he leads Serie A with 13 goals.
Tévez: After a difficult period at Manchester United -- where he was presented with limited opportunities by Sir Alex Ferguson -- Tévez's career has been re-ignited at crosstown rival Manchester City. In recent weeks, "Carlitos" has been in electrifying form, and proved his worth with a double over his former club in the first leg of the Carling Cup semifinals last week. Even if Tévez struggled to make an impact with Argentina in the World Cup qualifiers -- he was generally a non-factor -- Maradona is well aware of his qualities, and prefers his aggressive approach to that of many of Argentina's other top marksmen.
Agüero: That Agüero is Maradona's son-in-law doesn't do him any favors -- in fact, it gives the coach more reason to be more critical of the player (both on and off the field). There's no question Agüero is one of the most exciting talents in Europe, but there are two factors that play against him: inconsistency and his Messi-like tendency to be one player for his club and a completely different player for his country (even if he scored four goals in qualifying).
Agüero, who partnered Messi in the attack as Argentina claimed the gold medal at the '08 Summer Olympics, is blessed with tremendous talent -- more so than many of his teammates -- but needs to demonstrate the necessary hunger to warrant a World Cup place, and possibly even a starting role. Narrowly missing out on a place in Argentina's Germany '06 squad couldn't be a greater motivation for "Kun."
Lisandro López: Now with Lyon, "Licha" picked up where left off during his prolific four-year stay at FC Porto, both scoring goals and stretching defenses. Still, López continues to be overlooked by a stubborn Maradona. He was rarely provided with a chance to prove his worth during qualifying, and knows he faces a race against time to make Argentina's 23-man squad. In the next few months, López has no choice but to score as many goals as possible for Lyon. That's the only way to seduce Maradona.