Lionel Messi’s quest for international dominance and his attempt to equal or surpass former national manager and hero Diego Maradona begins Sunday when Argentina battles first-time qualifier Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group F action at Estadio Do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
For all the awards and praise Messi has garnered while starring for Spanish giants Barcelona, the World Cup trophy has eluded him and Argentina since 1986, when Maradona lifted his country with perhaps the most famous goal in the sport’s history.
Over the last nine years Messi has netted 38 goals in 86 international appearances, but he’s served Argentina better as more of a facilitator than scorer, with the country reaching the quarterfinals in the last two World Cups.
Now with Maradona out as coach and Alejandro Sabella stepping in, the 26-year-old Messi again leads a loaded Argentine squad with strikers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, and deft midfielder Angel di Maria acting as maestro. Argentina is expected to make another deep run, but must improve on its poor 9-5-2 record during the qualifying stages.
Argentina has claimed both of its matches against Bosnia- Herzegovina, scoring seven goals and surrendering none, but manager Safet Susic’s squad could play the role of spoiler early with several stars up and down the pitch.
The Dragons do have several scorers who can challenge Argentina following their 8-1-1 record and 30 goals scored to six conceded in the qualifying rounds, but containing one of the most potent attacks in the world could make all the difference for Bosnia.
Forward Edin Dzeko, who scored 26 goals in all competitions for Manchester City this past term, and highly rated Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic will have their opportunities to score, but much of the pressure will be on young defenders Ermin Bicakcic and Muhamed Besic.
Playing in their first World Cup, Bicakcic and Besic have 16 senior-team appearances and one goal between them. Nerves could be an issue for both, but once they settle down Bicakcic and Besic can contain Argentina’s attack and passing game.
Seasoned Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic will also play a significant role, and maybe represents the x-factor for his country’s hopes. While he’s most famous for scoring an incredible goal for Stoke City off a simple goal kick, the 26-year-old has 30 appearances in net for Bosnia and 136 appearances against top flight players in the EPL.
Start Time: Sunday, 6 p.m. EST
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at Watch ESPN here
Betting Odds: Every line favors Argentina with the highest at -2 to a low of -0.5
Over/Under: Could be high-scoring at 4.5 goals to 1.5 via Bovada.lv
Prediction: Argentina over Bosnia-Herzegovina 3-2