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   June 10, 2002 | 1330 IST


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Aimar hopes to lift Argentina

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Their team is packed with global superstars like Gabriel Batistuta and Juan Sebastian Veron, yet football-loving Argentine fans are looking for the emerging talent of Pablo Aimar to see them through their World Cup crisis.

The 23-year-old nicknamed 'The Clown' because he has an almost permanent grin on his face is suddenly being regarded as the nation's saviour after Argentina's 1-0 defeat to England on Friday left the favourites' hopes hanging on a victory over Sweden on Wednesday.

Aimar entered the wider football consciousness when he took over Argentina's playmaking role from the disappointing Juan Sebastian Veron in the second half against England and lifted their game.

Argentina still lost but fans have clamoured for more South American ball play from their team and see Aimar as the catalyst.

They have known Aimar for five years -- since he helped Argentina's under-20s win the 1997 World Youth Cup in Malaysia.

Aimar was reminded that he and defender Diego Placente had been in a similar situation to the one now facing Argentina's World Cup team, when the under-20s lost a group match in Malaysia.

"We've talked about what happened then, but we won the title anyway. The same happened (to the under-20s) in Qatar (in 1995). Let's hope this isn't the exception," Aimar said.

"Losing is never nice, (but) this national team, in a do-or-die situation, has always responded well," he told reporters at Argentina's World Cup base.

Aimar went on to grab a regular place in an attractive River Plate side that also included wonder kid striker Javier Saviola, whose absence in Japan many fans regret, and Colombian centre forward Juan Pablo Angel.


Valencia took note and stepped in ahead of bigger European clubs to sign Aimar when his compatriot Hector Cuper was coach.

He was soon plunged into a European Champions League campaign that concluded with a lost final to Bayern Munich a year ago when Cuper was criticised for taking Aimar off too soon.

In his second season with Valencia, Aimar started more often on the bench, but in the Spanish championship run-in this year he won a regular place in the side that clinched the title in May.

Argentina's 1978 World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti, an acid critic of the team if he perceives they are straying from the country's classic attacking style, said: "Argentina lack talent and I think they read the match wrongly against England.

"Despite their efficiency, Argentina have never played well in these (last) years, perhaps a bit in the friendly against Cameroon," said Menotti.

The World Cup warm-up friendly against the African champions in Geneva in March, an exciting 2-2 draw, was arguably the match that clinched Aimar's place in Argentina's squad for the Korea/Japan finals.

In that match, Veron and Aimar played together. Veron retired deeper into the central midfield role with Aimar the link to the forward trio.

They produced some moments of wonderful attacking football and Aimar went on to confirm his playmaking qualities in the 1-0 win over Germany in Stuttgart in April.

"Playing in the middle is more my natural position," said Aimar, who made his Argentina debut in a friendly against Mexico in Chicago in June 1999.

Having played in 12 of Argentina's 18 qualifying games and all three warm-up friendlies this year, he is looking forward to the possibility of a 21st cap in the most critical match of coach Marcelo Bielsa's reign.

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