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The World Cup and the injury issue

Will Inter Milan embrace a defensive mission — to rough up Lionel Messi — that could jeopardize his country’s World Cup chances?

The conventional wisdom is that the most effective defense against the diminutive Messi — “Little Leo” — is to rough him up, knocking him down at every opportunity. And no team defends better or with more physical conviction than Inter Milan; over its last four Champions contests — including back-to-back victories over the Premier League’s top scoring team, Chelsea — Inter has surrendered but a single goal. The question now is whether Inter can crush Barca’s bid by literally crushing its superstar.

What complicates that strategy is that Inter has four key starters — Walter Samuel, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Alberto Diego Milito — who, between them, have played some 250 games for Argentina. Moreover, Samuel, Cambiasso and Zanetti all play critical defensive roles. Nobody doubts their loyalty to the aptly colored black-and-blue; the three have worn those colors for a total of 26 seasons and Zanetti alone has suited up for Inter more than 600 times.

Divided loyalties — between club and country — has always been a bit of a complication, but mostly for front offices and coaches chafing at how the demands of national teams put their players at risk. But on the field it has seldom appeared a problem for countrymen to compete against each other. One only had to watch Man U defender Nemnja Vidic stomp his fellow Croatian, Bayern Munich striker Ivica Olic, and then offer him a hand up to understand how players handle this divide.

But Croatia is not heading to South Africa in June. Argentina and Messi are. And the 22-year-old is now soccer’s singular star. No player is viewed as more critical to his team’s Cup success and no player’s performance in South Africa is more anticipated by fans of all stripes. Can Inter’s Argentine contingent embrace a defensive mission — to rough up Messi — that could jeopardize his country’s World Cup chances? Could even Zanetti, the most-capped player in Argentina’s illustrious soccer history, return home after knocking Messi out of the World Cup or even having dented his step?

Inter’s coach Jose Mourinho is the game’s reigning genius — he essentially dubbed himself “The Special One” — after winning championships in three different countries and now having led his third team to a Champions semi-finals. Might he consider subbing out Samuel in central defense rather than expect roughhouse tactics from him against Messi? Or might Mourinho conceive a fresh defensive approach that will corral Messi and force his talented Barcelona teammates to try and pick up the scoring slack?

Italy vs. Spain, Inter vs. Barca, The Argentines vs. THE Argentine, Mourinho vs. Messi: until the World Cup kicks off in June, the match-ups are as intriguing as anything the game has to offer.