Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli accepted the two-time world champions’ chances at the World Cup in Russia will depend far more on Lionel Messi than his own influence.
Sampaoli was drafted in for Argentina’s final four matches of a faltering qualifying campaign, but it was Messi’s brilliant hat-trick in a 3-1 win at Ecuador in their final qualifier that ensured they didn’t miss out on the World Cup.
“This is going to be his team,” said Sampaoli, ahead of Friday’s friendly against Italy at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium.
“He is the best and is in a stage of maturity that he can carry the team on his shoulders. It is more his team than mine.”
For all his success at club level with Barcelona, Messi has never won a major international tournament with Argentina.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner will again carry the bulk of his nation’s expectations. But at 30, this could be Messi’s final opportunity to crown his glorious career with a World Cup.
📸 | Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero with a group of City youngsters at the CFA. pic.twitter.com/KpUoDxJxG3— City Watch (@City_Watch) March 22, 2018
Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero will not be fit to face Italy due to a hamstring injury and Sampaoli said he is also unlikely to play against Spain in Madrid on Tuesday.
“We have talked to City about Aguero. If there is a substantial improvement he could travel but I see it as difficult because of the short time left,” said Sampaoli.
Despite Aguero’s injury, Juventus forward Paulo Dybala didn’t even make it into Sampaoli’s squad with the former Sevilla coach enjoying an enviable array of prolific strikers to choose from.
Often compared to Messi for his diminutive physique and wicked left foot, Dybala has scored 21 goals in all competitions this season but has admitted he finds it difficult to play alongside Messi.
“It’s complicated for Dybala to get used to our style,” said Sampaoli, hinting that Dybala will miss out on the World Cup.
“We couldn’t improve his performances 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.”
Provided by AFP Sport
The Argentine genius is enjoying another otherworldly season as the Blaugrana charge towards the La Liga title with a Copa del Rey final and a Champions League quarter-final still to come.
Messi is leading Spain’s Pichichi race with 25 goals this season and has laid on a further 12 assists.
However, writing in his exclusive column for the Player’s Tribune, Pique explained that is what Messi does without the ball that makes him a special talent.
“People often ask me what it has been like playing with Messi for so many years. If I had to explain it in one sentence: He is an alien,” the 31-year-old defender explained.
“He is not from this planet. He’s the only player that I can recall seeing play for the first time, way back when we were 13 years old, and saying to myself, ‘Oh, this kid comes from somewhere else. This is not human’.
“He is an assassin. He’s the greatest I’ve ever seen. But, you see, it’s not about the way he attacks. “People ask me, ‘What’s the most incredible thing I’ve seen Leo do on the pitch?’ And they expect me to tell them about him dribbling three defenders. And trust me, I have plenty of those stories.
“But for me, the reason that I know he’s from another planet is because of what happens when he doesn’t have the ball.
“Perhaps you can’t see it on TV, but I can see it on the pitch. You have to see his face when he’s sprinting to win the ball back from a defender.
“He has a look in his eyes that I haven’t ever seen in another footballer. It is what makes him so great. He is not interested in the spectacle. He rarely even does stepovers. He’s cut from a different cloth.
“His greatness is in his obsession with winning the ball.
“Maybe that doesn’t make for a great headline. But when I think about Messi’s true magic, it’s not in something you can find on YouTube. It’s about a subtle expression in his eyes. His greatness would take me another 5,000 words to explain. Perhaps in another article!”
The Brazil international is being perpetually linked with a move away from the Parisians despite only completing a world-record switch to the Ligue 1 giants last summer.
A transfer back to Spain has been mooted with Madrid and bitter rivals Barca the two clubs heading the queue for his signature.
Los Blancos have already begun their swooning process with boss Zinedine Zidane insisting the 26-year-old would be a natural fit alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
Madrid president Florentino Perez is also a long-time admirer but according to reports in the Catalan media, Neymar has sounded out a potential return to the Camp Nou with his former teammates.
Asked about the situation Iniesta told the El Larguero radio show (h/t ESPN): “It is not that it surprises me or not. I am indifferent. I would not take that as a lack of respect, it is not something I am thinking about.
“I would just think that Madrid are signing one of the best players in the world. But we still have a squad and players that are better than the others.
“Usually when you leave somewhere, it is difficult to return. I would be more surprised if he came back [than to see him at Madrid]. But we will see what happens in future.”