Barcelona forward is his national team captain, and his manager expects him to 'carry the team on his shoulders'
Argentina boast luxury of attacking riches but remains 'Messi's team', insists Sampaoli
Jorge Sampaoli will choose the team and the tactics. He may yet be a World Cup-winning manager, but he is aware he is overshadowed by the world’s greatest player. It could have been self-deprecation or a recognition of reality, but he said: "This is Messi's Argentina, not mine."
Lionel Messi’s Argentina face Italy on Friday. “This is going to be his team,” Sampaoli added. “He is the best of all and is in a stage of maturity that can he can carry the team on his shoulders.”
Messi’s palmares includes more than 600 goals for club and country, with record numbers for both Argentina and Barcelona, plus four Uefa Champions Leagues and five Ballons d’Or. The major omission from a storied CV is the World Cup.
Argentina were finalists in 2014, when Messi was rather flatteringly named the player of the tournament. They have also suffered Copa America final defeats, but Sampaoli rejected the suggestions they have failed the major tests.
"I had to endure many years where winning the World Cup was not spoken of Argentina,” he said. “These guys took us to the first level. They lost, but they're not losers."
Now Sampaoli believes Argentina’s history and ability makes them among the favourites in Russia this summer.
“I think we are candidates in the World Cup, for shirt and quality,” the former Chile manager said. “We want to strengthen the image of the Argentine team. The respect everyone gives us very great."
It is partly because of Messi, partly because of his supporting cast. Sergio Aguero is foremost among them, a close friend as well as a striking ally of the captain.
“Messi and Aguero can complement each other very well,” Sampaoli said. “Sergio understands how he plays and it will be important they team up in games because they are really good there.”
While 29-year-old Aguero has become Manchester City’s record scorer, Sampaoli added: “For Aguero this is a great moment - although the best Aguero was the one at Independiente.” He wants to see the striker return to being the free-spirited teenager whose dribbling he savoured.
It will not be seen on Friday night. A knee injury will sideline Aguero, who is also likely to miss Tuesday’s friendly with Spain. “If there is a substantial improvement he could travel to Madrid to play against Spain, but I see it as difficult because of the little time left,” said Sampaoli.
Argentina will liaise with City who, with a Champions League double header against Liverpool and the chance to win the Premier League against either Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester United in April, may prefer for the striker to miss both internationals.
Argentina ought to be able to cope without him. Such are the luxury of riches that Sampaoli enjoys that other national team manager could afford to omit Mauro Icardi or Paulo Dybala, who are unlikely to go to the World Cup.
Dybala has scored 21 goals for Juventus this season, but has never found the net at senior level for his country. Sampaoli believes he has not suited Argentina’s brand of football.
"It's complicated for Dybala get used to our style,” he said. “We couldn't improve his performance and we have to evaluate if the current players are better than Paulo or if we have to keep working with Paulo to improve his performances. Icardi's case is similar to Dybala's. There's a big difference between his performances at Inter and for Argentina. I'm not ruling him out for the World Cup but we are working in the short-term and you have to prioritise the relationships on the pitch.”
Argentina are overloaded with gifted attackers. They have different issues at the back Ramiro Funes Mori, who has not played for almost a year after undergoing knee surgery, was a surprise pick. “We always thought of him. He showed that he has character,” Sampaoli explained. Funes Mori was his choice but this, he believes, is Messi’s team.