Sampaoli banking on Messi for World Cup revival

Argentina’s Lionel Messi gestures during their Russia 2018 World Cup qualifier football match against Uruguay in Mendoza, Argentina, on September 1, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ANDRES LARROVERE

New manager Jorge Sampaoli says he is looking to superstar Lionel Messi to revive Argentina’s World Cup fortunes starting with Friday’s friendly with Brazil in Melbourne.

Sampaoli has been installed to kick-start the two-time world champions’ ailing South American campaign where they lag outside the automatic qualifying positions in fifth spot with four games left.

Argentina will square off with Brazil before a capacity 100,000 crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground ahead of their crucial next qualifier in Uruguay on August 31.

Sampaoli, who is Argentina’s third coach during the current World Cup campaign after Gerardo Martino and Edgardo Bauza, said he valued Messi’s commitment to get his country to next year’s World Cup finals in Russia.

“I’m very thankful that the best player in the world cut short his vacation in China and was able to travel here for a friendly,” Sampaoli told reporters on Thursday.

“He has the will to participate and drive Argentina to the World Cup, so he’s very much involved toward these goals.

“The things that he’s done for the team, especially this time round, are really valuable.

“I really hope that the abilities that he shows as a leader and as a player will help Argentina improve.”

Sampaoli wants to use the Melbourne match to see Messi and Paris Saint-Germain’s Angel Di Maria work together.

“They are very good players, individually, and these friendly games give us the opportunity to test their compatibility and see how well they can work together,” Sampaoli said.

“They’re both great players and we have great expectations. I believe that they will be able to help the team.”

– Never a friendly –
But Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi, recalled to the Argentine squad for the first time since 2013, is in doubt for Friday’s match with a thigh injury.

Sampaoli said he was keen for Icardi to at least play a few minutes “but unfortunately the doctor is not on the same page”.

“So it doesn’t matter how strongly we want him to play if the medical advice is to the contrary. We’re hoping for a miracle in the next 24 hours for him to be able to play at least a few minutes.”

Despite the match being classified as a friendly, the former Sevilla manager said his players were committed to show how well they can play, particularly against their arch-rival.

“They want to play very strongly to demonstrate that they really value coming here as a team and there’s also the aspect of playing a very strong rival team,” he said.

Brazil, who have already qualified for next year’s World Cup, are without their talisman Neymar but Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho said they were hellbent not to lose their edge against Argentina.

“Brazil and Argentina is never a friendly, everybody wants to win and we know how important this is being a classic,” Fernandinho said.

“We need to continue in our rhythm, but Argentina has a new coach and he had really good work with Chile and Sevilla. This is more motivation for them.”

Paris Saint-Germain defender Thiago Silva said he was lookig forward to the challenge of containing Messi.

“It’s very difficult to play against a player like Messi. Lately I’ve had to do it many times, every year in the Champions League,” Silva told reporters late Thursday.

“I think tomorrow’s game is not him playing for Barcelona, it’s Brazil versus Argentina, and it’s not a friendly game, both sides will be very motivated.”

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