Sampaoli downplays talk of unrest, vows to get best of Messi
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) Shrugging off talk of unrest inside the Argentina squad, under-pressure coach Jorge Sampaoli insisted he still had the final say on team selection and will make changes to get the best out of Lionel Messi in the must-win World Cup match against Nigeria.
A 3-0 loss to Croatia last week left Argentina in danger of missing out on the last 16 and sparked days of soul-searching in Argentine football, with Sampaoli coming under criticism for his tactical approach.
There was a meeting between Argentina’s players and the technical staff the following night, when the players gave their views and demanded clarity on the way the team should play.
Sampaoli said he had been made to feel like a ”criminal” by critics, but that there was no mutiny within the squad and he was still a coach ”with enthusiasm and a clear idea what I want to achieve.”
”From what I see in my players, I am convinced this will be the starting point for this national squad and I am going to cling to that thought that I am close to my players,” Sampaoli said Monday, a day before the Nigeria game.
In a departure from pre-match news conferences before the games against Iceland (1-1) and Croatia, Sampaoli didn’t divulge his starting lineup. However, he said changes will be made to ”generate energy” in the team and that Messi will be more involved than he was against Croatia, when the five-time world player of the year had 47 touches – fewer than Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero.
”I think the match was complicated for Messi,” Sampaoli said. ”The structure of the game didn’t favor him. He didn’t get a lot of balls from the midfield.
”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 be touching the ball a lot more.”
Sampaoli said one of his main tasks had been to transmit positivity to his players, who may be feeling pressure with Argentina in last place in Group D and on the verge of elimination. The Albiceleste must beat Nigeria and then rely on Iceland failing to beat already-qualified Croatia. If Argentina and Iceland both win, Argentina has to win by a bigger margin to advance.
”Let me stress, I don’t feel like I am inside that virtual world. I do not consume fake news and lies and untruths,” Sampaoli said. ”But there are people I have to work with on a daily basis and they are affected by these comments.
”I want my players to be able to come to a match with a good performance. We are at tournament and we have to try and compete. You have to feel tip-top in your heart and your soul, your legs and your head. We have to diagnose the basic problems so we can nip any problems in the bud quickly.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80