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.