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Maradona brings X factor

PARIS, May 17- All eyes will be on Group B in South Africa thanks to the presence in the Argentina dugout of one Diego Armando Maradona.The star of the 1986 World Cup and one of the greatest players ever, the colourful and controversial 49-year-old is sure to attract his fair share of headlines in his new guise as national coach.

Having endured a turbulent qualifying campaign, Maradona has overseen a marked improvement since his side snatched a berth at the finals in their last qualifying game against Uruguay.

The impressive nature of their 1-0 friendly win in Germany in March prompted critics to reassess their preconceptions about Argentina’s chances of success, while in European Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi they boast the world’s best player.

Their squad is also thick with guile and experience, despite the surprising omissions of Inter Milan pair Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso.

Argentina will face Greece, Nigeria and South Korea in the group phase and captain Javier Mascherano believes there will be no need to worry if the two-time champions don’t click immediately.

"In the long run what really matters is not what the pundits say but how well you do during that month," said the Liverpool holding midfielder.

"Spain and Brazil look a cut above the rest because they’ve both won trophies in the last couple of years, but experience tells me that the World Cup is won by the team that improves through the tournament, not necessarily the one who plays the best."

Maradona, meanwhile, is confident that his team can go all the way.

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"I tell my players that 30 days of sacrifice for the chance to kiss the World Cup is nothing in the life of a man," he said.

"An achievement like that is like touching the sky. I played in World Cups and I reached two finals. I know what it takes."

Argentina qualified despite a humiliating 6-1 loss at altitude in Bolivia and a first ever home qualifying defeat to Brazil, but underwhelming pre-tournament form is something of a feature in Group B.

South Korea, semi-finalists on home soil in 2002, overcame a sluggish start under new coach Huh Jung-Moo but eventually qualified with two games to spare to reach their eighth finals — an Asian record.

"We were drawn in the so-called Group of Death in Asian qualifying and we made it through," said Huh. "We believe we can do the job again in South Africa."

Nigeria are not the force that captivated the world at the 1998 tournament, when players like Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh illuminated their participation, but in Everton’s Joseph Yobo, Chelsea’s John Mikel Obi and Wolfsburg’s Obafemi Martins they possess a steely spine.

Greece edged Ukraine by a single goal in their qualifying play-off after finishing behind Switzerland in European qualifying Group 2.

Otto Rehhagel, the man who masterminded their stunning Euro 2004 success, remains at the helm and can call upon seasoned veterans from the Euro adventure as well as 10-goal European qualifying zone top scorer Theofanis Gekas.

Favourites: Argentina

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Fancied: South Korea and Nigeria

Underdogs: Greece

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