Jorge Sampaoli puts focus on Messi in bid for salvation

Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli is under pressure to deliver against Nigeria.

It never ends well when players and manager fall out, especially so at the biggest sporting event on Earth.

France fell apart in 2010, when Nicholas Anelka was sent home from South Africa after several senior players disputed Raymond Domenech’s tactics. Both ended up losers, with France out at the group stages and Domenech out of a job.

And who can forget 2002, when Roy Keane headed home from Saipan after his bust-up with Mick McCarthy and Ireland’s fortune’s headed south, albeit unlucky to be beaten by Spain on penalties in the last 16?

And now it could be Argentina’s turn, with even the superstardom of Lionel Messi no guarantee against humiliation.

After being crushed by Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday, Argentinian football started to implode. Senior players called for a meeting with the head of the FA, critics called for the head of Jorge Sampaoli, and social media trolls called him a criminal.

It all started to get a bit, well, Messi.

So St Petersburg this evening could be Messi’s last stand, with the Barcelona star threatening to retire from international football — again — if his side fail to beat Nigeria. While their record against the Super Eagles is immaculate — four wins from four World Cup meetings and a victorious Olympic final for good measure — the mood music coming from the African camp is more mellifluous.

Nigeria’s Bryan Idowu spoke of his admiration for the little maestro before adding:

We want to make sure it’s Messi’s last game. As much as we enjoy watching Messi play, this is against us. There’s only one option for us, that he plays his last game in St. Petersburg.

Their German coach, Gernot Rohr, agreed: “We all love this great player, everybody loves him. But our aim is to qualify, and in football there is no mercy. We have to make sure we give him no gifts.” But the way he has been playing, Messi seems in the mood to examine the dentistry of any gift horses the Nigerians might proffer. His heat map so far is singularly unspectacular. Having missed a penalty that would have meant three points rather than one against Iceland, Messi went missing against Croatia, when Real Madrid’s Luka Modric ran the show.

One damning statistic — aren’t they all — suggested Messi had a mere 47 touches of the ball against Croatia, fewer than goalkeeper Willy Caballero, whose disastrous error started the collapse. Sampaolis said he is prepared to address the situation by switching shape to suit his talisman, which gives weight to those stories that on Friday, Messi and his mates met Claudio Tapia, the chief executive of the Argentinian FA, in a bid to force through a change of tactics.

Sampaoli was vague about the instigation and outcome of any such meeting.

I talk a lot to the players, both in meetings and individually, but what I discuss with my players in these meetings I will never make public.

But he did concede: “When there’s a defeat of course there are complaints, people blame each other and there is always a discussion. That happens all the time. There are responsibilities on both sides.”

Then he touched on the invasive influence of social media. “In the real world things are said face to face and you don’t have to use a telephone or write a message.

“Sometimes people in the virtual world make you feel like a criminal simply because you have lost a game. They say somebody has to be fired because of that defeat. If I were to think that I’ve got to immerse myself in the virtual world, I would have to throw in the towel and leave my position. But I am a coach with a clear idea what I want to achieve. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.”

Losing tomorrow, however, does not seem an option those back home in Argentina will tolerate, nor a possibility Sampaoli will contemplate.

“I am totally convinced that team will go on pitch with great energy to secure a victory,” he said.

I am totally convinced there will be a new page in history of the national squad. This team is absolutely determined to win the match, to get through to the round of 16 and start a new page at this World Cup. There are five games to win the final and this will be the first of them.

But he concedes a change of tactics from the Croatia defeat are inevitable to make more of Messi’s abilities. “I think the match was complicated for Messi. The structure of the game didn’t favour him, he didn’t get a lot of balls from midfield and that was a mistake.

“We are going to try and improve that and we are sure that is not going to happen tomorrow. For the good of Argentina, I am sure Lionel Messi will l be touching the ball a lot more than in our previous match.”

But it will not be easy for them. Nigeria were buoyed by a 2-0 victory over Iceland that means a draw should be enough to progress. Ahmed Musa scored twice in that game, and Rohr revealed that he urged the player to leave Leicester on loan in order to get regular football. Musa went back to CSKA Moscow in January, and Rohr was impressed with his attitude. “I asked him to go on loan and he returned to Russia. I came to see him when it was minus 20 degrees, and he was training in the snow. He has been fighting hard to get back into the team and I now have the confidence that he will help us get a result against Argentina.” The German seems to have a paternal relationship with his players and has earned their trust, something Sampaoli can only dream of.

Although Nigeria have never beaten Argentina in a tournament, Rohr says: “There is a first time for everything. We are a young team but I am optimistic our mental situation is very good. Argentina have some doubts and we want to take advantage of them.”

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