RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Argentina embark on an expected breeze through World Cup Group F on Sunday against a talented if inexperienced Bosnia side playing in the finals for the first time.
The sides meet at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro where Lionel Messi’s side, boasting one of the world’s best attacks, will be hoping to return for the final on July 13 in search of their nation's third world title.
Messi scored his 38th Argentina goal in last week’s warmup win over Slovenia, opponents chosen specifically with Bosnia in mind.
The Argentina captain will see it as a good omen as he looks to break a World Cup scoring hoodoo dating back to his 2006 debut in Germany and a goalless 2010 finals in South Africa.
Messi appears in good shape and mood going into the tournament after a mixed season with hamstring problems and fewer goals than usual with a mere three for Argentina compared with the 13 he notched between June 2012 and June 2013.
Argentina, who beat Bosnia 2-0 in a November friendly without Messi thanks to two Sergio Aguero goals, have an average defense compared with to their attacking riches but midfielder Fernando Gago said the key to success would be balance and playing as an 11-man unit.
“We know that in the final quarter few teams can play at the speed of Angel (Di Maria), Kun (Aguero), Leo (Messi)… The precision they have at such speed marks the difference,” Gago told reporters.
“From my position I have to help them to ensure they get clean ball and give balance to the rear, you can’t cut the team (in half),” he told the sports daily Ole.
“You need the 11 to attack and the 11 to defend… The forwards have to have high precision and sometimes withdraw to break out in quick counters.”
Striker Gonzalo Higuain, the other member of Argentina’s “Fab Four” strike force, played the first half of Thursday’s practice for the reserves in a role coach Alejandro Sabella expects Bosnia danger man Edin Dzeko to play.
With Higuain having recovered from a left ankle problem, Argentina should be at full strength against Bosnia in a group which also contains Nigeria and Iran.
Bosnia coach Safet Susic, known for his penchant for attacking football, is likely to deploy a more conservative formation against Argentina with top scorer Dzeko as the lone striker operating in front of a five-man midfield.
Having qualified for their first major tournament as an independent nation, Bosnia could not have asked for a tougher first appearance on the biggest stage.
“We are up against the group favorites and a team whose ambition is to go all the way but nonetheless, we have high hopes of getting something from this game and going through to the last 16,” Susic said.
The magnitude of the task has left Susic pondering how to use versatile midfielder Muhamed Besic, whose designated role was to man-mark Messi.
Susuc hinted he was prepared to make a tactical U-turn.
“It’s a dilemma but I now think it would be counterproductive to sacrifice a player of Besic’s fitness and ability just to man-mark Messi although he would be ideal for that role," he said.
“Messi will probably enjoy plenty of freedom but we need to have someone near him every time he gets the ball.”
(Additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic, editing by Ed Osmond)