Argentina stars to take stage

Times Staff Writer

Argentina's national soccer team, minus Barcelona wunderkind Lionel Messi, will be on display when it takes on Guatemala at the Coliseum tonight at 7:30.

Messi, 20, is still not fully recovered from a left thigh injury. But his absence doesn't mean Argentina brought its "B" squad to face Guatemala -- even if it is primarily fielding the under-23 team that will participate this summer at the Bejing Olympics.

Argentina's team includes defender Martin Demichelis, 17, of Bayer Munich, midfielder Javier Mascherano, 23, of Liverpool and attacking midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme, 29, of Argentina's Boca Juniors club. They collectively provide enough star power for tonight's matchup. In all, 13 of the 18 Argentina players called up for the game are based in Europe.

Argentina's fans, undeterred by Messi's absence and the cold and wind, on Tuesday lined up against the fence at USC's McAlister Field to catch a glimpse of practice. One fan climbed up a tree to get an unobstructed view; two others came prepared with their own ladders. Riquelme drew the most attention.

The mood was far different at Los Angeles International Airport with Guatemala Coach Hernan Dario Gomez.

Gomez arrived with the Guatemala national team on Tuesday and he was greeted with questions about whether there's a feud brewing between him and forward Carlos Ruiz, the country's top player.

Ruiz, 28, recently reacquired by the Galaxy, took Gomez to task two weeks ago for a statement the coach made about Argentina.

Gomez, when asked about the upcoming game, said he didn't like playing Argentina one bit.

"It's a game that you win, you loose or you get routed," Gomez said.

Ruiz said the coach should support his team better. "As a player that doesn't sit right," Ruiz said.

"How do you motivate someone by telling them you might get routed?"

Ruiz noted that Gomez did say they could win, "but why not just focus only on winning or getting a draw . . . but not on losing or getting routed."

Ruiz will not play tonight because he is still rehabilitating his right knee after having surgery in November.

Still, it's easy to understand why Gomez made his statement. On paper Argentina-Guatemala is a mismatch.

Argentina is a two-time World Cup champion and is No. 1 in the FIFA world rankings; while Guatemala is 105.

Argentina has appeared in 14 World Cups and Guatemala has never made it to the tournament.

Tonight's match is expected to draw up to 40,000 spectators and will be broadcast live to Argentina and Guatemala. The game is blacked out in the U.S., although a few spots in Los Angeles have been advertising a closed-circuit feed of the match.

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jaime.cardenas@latimes.com

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