Friday 20 July 2018

Argentina name side early to keep their 'genius' Messi happy

Argentina star Lionel Messi jumps for the ball during training ahead of their game against Iceland Photo: Getty
Argentina star Lionel Messi jumps for the ball during training ahead of their game against Iceland Photo: Getty

Jeremy Wilson

It was famously once done by Jose Mourinho as a means of giving his Chelsea team confidence ahead of playing Barcelona, but there are few other precedents for a manager publicly naming his team before a major match.

Perhaps Argentina's Jorge Sampaoli just wanted to inject a bit of certainty amid all the doubt and controversy that had followed his side's cancelled friendly in Israel but, whatever the motivation, it prompted one Icelandic journalist to suggest the South Americans might just be feeling over-confident about today's Group D opener.

It was certainly good news for several Premier League players, most strikingly Manchester City's Sergio Aguero, who has been preferred as the main centre-forward ahead of Gonzalo Higuain.

Aguero and Higuain have between them scored almost 400 goals in club football over the past eight seasons and would be guaranteed a place in just about any other team, but Sampaoli was also quite open in admitting that his selections were based heavily around what was likely to extract the best from one man: Lionel Messi.

"I don't think it is necessary to hide this information," said Sampaoli.

Concentrates

"We had to consider Leo. We will see a team who concentrates on what this very important player is doing.

"The players create on the pitch and, with Messi, what coaches must do is organise around the player and his amazing skills. Having Leo means you must organise the team differently."

Higuain had started in a more target-man role with Messi through the 2014 World Cup but, after Higuain scored only once and missed an excellent chance in the final against Germany, Aguero's more reliable finishing must also have been a factor.

It all suggests that Argentina are planning a more technical approach in the belief that Messi, Aguero, Angel di Maria and Maximiliano Meza can replicate something closer to the Barcelona style in front of two holding midfielders in Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano.

Despite their limited appearances at club level for, respectively, Chelsea and Manchester United, Sampaoli will also start with Willy Caballero in goal and Marcos Rojo at centre-back.

Sampaoli is adamant that they have accumulated sufficient fitness during 34 training sessions over the past three weeks and he also rejected the suggestion that the next month represents some sort of last chance for Messi, aged 30, to win the World Cup.

"Leo is very fit, well prepared and hopes to achieve his dream," he said.

"He shouldn't be under pressure. I do not think this should be his last World Cup - his skills and professionalism means he should be the one who decides. He is a genius and plays like a genius."

When Sampaoli also made reference to the huge expectations and demands of the Argentina fans, the contrast with opponents Iceland could hardly have been more striking.

Their manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, openly admitted that his players had been socialising in pubs with supporters to create further synergy and believes that this occasion will surpass even their passage to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.

After the victory against England, he clearly also believes that more upsets are quite conceivable.

"To pre-empt some questions," said Hallgrimsson.

"All players are fit and everyone wants to play the biggest game in the history of Iceland football.

"(But) we don't think it's a miracle. We play a different style but if you work together as one unit then anything is achievable.

"If someone is surprised then they don't know much about the Icelandic national team."

He then smiled, before adding: "You can't help but love Iceland, we haven't attacked anyone, been to war with anyone, we only had the cod war and no one got hurt there. It's a pretty little nation, and pretty people in general. And, to save more questions, I am still a dentist and I will never stop being a dentist." (© The Daily Telegraph)

Telegraph.co.uk

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