Thursday 14 December 2017

Argentina boss insists there are no problems with Messi

Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella says he was not hurt by Lionel Messi's comments after their opening win against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella says he was not hurt by Lionel Messi's comments after their opening win against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano

Miguel Delaney

For a game that is expected to be a rather easy Argentina win, manager Alejandro Sabella came out with a hard edge and hard line yesterday.

His team may be on the brink of the last 16 but, if you are to believe some around the South American side's camp, they are also on the brink of another debate.

The build-up to today's fixture with Iran has been dominated by more discussion about the team's formation and, most notably, whether Lionel Messi forced change upon the manager at half-time of the 2-1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sabella was defiant, and seemingly definitive. There is apparently no issue with Messi. Everything the player said was in the spirit of the squad.

"The atmosphere of the group is perfect." Argentina will play 4-3-3 today, but Sabella is still willing to change if a fixture requires it.

The real question could be whether Messi requires it. Something of an undercurrent to Argentina's campaign regards the influence their greatest player has accumulated, and if the ego has now grown with his talent.

For his part, Messi was extremely measured in his comments about the system following the Bosnia match, during which Argentina switched from a restrictive 5-3-2 at half-time. Sabella claimed he had no problem with any of that.

"I was not hurt by Leo's comments and he'd already said it before," the manager said.

"It didn't bother me at all and the atmosphere of the group is perfect. Every day players give interviews. You can talk to them individually and we know there's off-the-record information at all times and we are all free to say whatever we want.

"We are all professionals. The day after the match, the coach decided who goes to the press conference and I told Messi to go. I fully trust my players from a human and professional standpoint and they trust me.

"We have a very strong group spirit in the team and I'm not hurt by what he says. I discuss football with my players. It's good to have an open dialogue because we can learn from each other."

That seemingly didn't extend to the media, as Sabella stated he just doesn't listen to external criticism.

"We don't look for enemies outside, otherwise we'd always be looking behind our backs," he said. "We have other important things to fix."

He certainly fixed the first game. "The match I anticipated didn't happen," Sabella said. The game was tight, we were only 1-0 up, that's always a slim lead. We needed something else, to change something to get better, because we weren't putting in a good game."

That doesn't mean he won't change back in future.

"The system is 4-3-3, but I don't close any door. If we have to change, we will change. If you don't criticise yourself, people say you're stubborn. If you do, they say you're weak. I think about what's best for the group, and not about anything else."

Sabella did completely acknowledge that Argentina "have to get better". The irony is that, for all the controversy, an element of conflict could genuinely complete the team.

Argentina did end up looking formidable despite the formation issue, and the ability to switch and prevent teams second-guessing them could become significant, especially with a star as unpredictable as Messi in the team. He remains the only player in this World Cup capable of influencing the destination of the trophy with his own individual performances.

That could become all the more important now that the finest team of the last decade are gone. Spain's demise has made this more open than any tournament since 2006. Sabella feels Argentina can yet close it out.

"We have confidence in our strengths, and we think we have the capacity to win. However, to think we can't lose would be silly."

The greater danger against Iran is a frustrating draw, especially given how Carlos Queiroz's team resolutely defend. Sabella had a bullish response for that too.

"It's about an attitude to life, as much as football, to grab it by the scruff straight away, and give 100pc."

Argentina v Iran, Live, RTE2/UTV, 5.00pm

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