By Miguel Lobianco
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina have the ability to win an elusive Olympic gold medal in women's hockey at the Rio Games despite losing talismanic, eight-times world player of the year Luciana Aymar, coach Gabriel Minadeo said.
Aymar, famed and feared for her weaving runs and dribbling skills, retired at the end of 2014 after a medal-studded career - though without ever having won a gold.
"Argentina must learn to play without her, she wasn’t going to be eternal ... I think Argentina has potential and the players to be able to replace 'Lucha' with another gameplan,' Minadeo told Reuters in an interview.
"We're going to be able to show Argentina are a power without having 'Lucha'," said Minadeo, whose team will take part in the Champions Trophy in England next month.
"What she had was that she resolved things for you when they got complicated, with an individual move, pulling something out of the hat," he said after a practice at the Cenard national athletics training center in the capital.
However, for all her achievements, Aymar never managed to add the gold medal to two silver and two bronzes she won at the previous four Games starting with silver at Sydney 2000 when the team earned their nickname Las Leonas (lionesses).
Forward Carla Rebecchi, who took over from Aymar as team captain, said they had set themselves the target of the gold medal after winning a second silver at the London Games in 2012.
"We don’t want to put pressure on ourselves but we know it's the medal we’re missing and it's also a dream, we know it's difficult but we're doing everything we can ... to compete at the highest level," she told Reuters.
Minadeo believes Argentina can take that final step without Aymar, who retired midway through an Olympic four-year cycle after winning the team's fifth and her sixth Champions Trophy on home soil in Mendoza.
There was no discernible slump in the team last year when they won the world league and they are now building strongly for Rio.
"Argentina has forwards who hurt rival teams. They have a passing game that is improving and is very dynamic and I think that's essential in hockey," said Minadeo, who picks his squad from the local amateur championship and nurtures them towards a higher level.
"We've got to take out our 'chip' for national (league) hockey which is a lot slower, one-on-one,” he said. "Internationally, you don't elude (opponents) so much, what eludes them is the pass (you make), so if Argentina improve that I think it will be fundamental.
"It's a key to breaking down rivals' defensive systems."
Argentina may, however, still miss the dribbling runs that earned Aymar the epithet of the Maradona of women’s hockey and were often a key to the team's successes.
Minadeo said the newer girls in the team were being put through a crash course in matches so that they go into the Rio tournament with plenty of experience of top competition.
They started the season with six friendlies against touring New Zealand in the Atlantic seaside resort of Mar del Plata in February-March.
This was followed by a tour of Belgium and Germany in April, friendlies at the Olympic venue in Rio in May and another trip to Europe for the Champions Trophy in England from June 18-26.
"In July, four countries will come here (to Argentina for more friendlies) so each player will get (to Rio) with at least 30-35 matches which is a very good playing base," said Minadeo, a former men's Olympic player going to his seventh Games and fourth as a coach.
Minadeo said taking part in the Olympics was the greatest experience for an amateur athlete. But competitors were isolated at a Games from what might be going on in the city staging them and Rio would be no different despite political turmoil and the Zika health risk to pregnant women.
"One is kind of on the margins of those things," he said. "Today we don’t think about (Zika) but we depend on the COA's (Argentine Olympic Committee) information to know how to watch out for ourselves."
(Additional reporting and writing by Rex Gowar; Editing by Richard Balmforth)