BUENOS AIRES – There's another new coach in Argentina and a whiff of hope that Alejandro Sabella has a plan to mold a real team around Lionel Messi, who has shown he can't win the World Cup by himself.
Sabella's first serious test comes Friday when Argentina faces Chile in one of four World Cup qualifiers across South America, opening a two-year qualifying process that the Gauchos almost didn't get through under Diego Maradona in the run-up to South Africa in 2010.
No matter the coach or attacking formation, Argentina's focus is always on Messi, who has replaced Javier Mascherano as the team's permanent captain.
Messi has scored almost 200 goals playing for Barcelona, but has just 17 for Argentina. He has not scored a single goal in the Gauchos' last 16 competitive games--seven World Cup qualifiers, five World Cup games in South Africa, and four Copa America matches.
"He (Messi) has set up more goals than any other player," Sabella said. "There is no reason to go crazy if he is not scoring goals. Almost all of Argentina's goals come from his feet or his head."
The former coach of Argentine club Estudiantes, Sabella has received favorable reviews in his first few friendlies, showing more tactical acumen than Sergio Batista or Maradona.
Messi's partner up front on Friday at River Plate's Monumental Stadium figures to be Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain. It probably would have been Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero, but he will miss the match with a left-leg injury.
Sabella has dropped two regulars from Argentina's Copa America squad: Inter Milan defender Javier Zanetti and Manchester City forward Carlos Tevez.
Argentina was ousted in July from the quarterfinals of the Copa America, while the continent's traditional second-tier teams Venezuela and Peru reached the semifinals. Uruguay won the title, defeating Paraguay 2-0 in the final.
"The level of several national teams has risen," defender Pablo Zabaleta told the Clarin newspaper. "The Copa America showed it. Now there are no sure victories. Which is to say, the days of simply pulling on the shirt and getting a victory--they are gone. Sabella has told us we have to strong as a team."
Chile was also knocked out in the quarterfinals, a disappointment for new coach Claudio Borghi. Borghi replaced Marcelo Bielsa, who took Chile to the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup.
Both Borghi and Bielsa are Argentines.
"Everyone knows how Chile plays," Messi said. "The Chileans like to put on pressure and play with pace when they have the ball."
Chile will be without Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez, who is sidelined with a thigh injury.
Four more qualifiers are set for Tuesday: Venezuela vs. Argentina, Chile vs. Peru, Paraguay vs. Uruguay and Bolivia vs. Colombia.