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.
Jorge Sampaoli: "The important thing is that Messi is surrounded by capable players. I spoke to him yesterday and he's very excited."— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) June 1, 2017
“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.”
Jorge Sampaoli: "The call for Mauro Icardi is related to the performance in his team." pic.twitter.com/mDZwLVwPmO— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 2, 2017
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.
“To lose would be different for us because we haven’t lost under (coach) Tite, but we are prepared if we do.”
Apart from Fernandinho, his teammate and rising star Gabriel Jesus, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Silva and Chelsea’s David Luiz are in the Brazil squad.
The UAE stand on the brink of being eliminated from World Cup 2018 qualifying but Fares Juma insists the players won’t give up on their “dream” of helping their nation reach football’s biggest tournament for the first time since 1990.
The Whites simply have to beat Thailand in Group B of the third round of Asia qualifying next Tuesday as well as win their remaining games against Saudi Arabia and Iraq, while also hoping the three teams above them – Japan, Saudi and Australia – slip up.
First up is a friendly against Laos in new coach Edgardo Bauza’s first game in charge since being named Mahdi Ali’s successor last month.
And Al Jazira defender Juma insists the player will fight until the end.
“It is a very important and crucial stage for us and we have to show solidarity and try and overcome this stage and put our campaign back on track,” Juma told the UAE Football Association’s official website.
“The win and three points (against Thailand) are all that we are focused on, at the moment. We are not looking too far ahead and are not looking at the complexities of calculation regarding qualifying from the group.
“What is important is to win the next game against Thailand and then focus on our remaining two games against Saudi Arabia and Iraq.”
Centre-back Juma has enjoyed a stellar season domestically with the Pride of Abu Dhabi, who were crowned Arabian Gulf League champions for the first time in six years.
And he is hoping to restore pride in the national team jersey too following back to back defeats to Japan and Australia.
“We were able to delight our fans before and we will look to do that again,” said Juma, 28.
“We still have the opportunity to qualify and we will not relinquish it easily or give up. Football has taught us to fight till the end and we will do that. We have waited for long to qualify for the World Cup and we will make sure that the dream comes true.
“The fans have always been on our side and have never let us down. They are the number one player in all our matches and I hope that they continue to support us in this journey.”
The UAE kick-off against Laos in Kuala Lumpur, where they are in training camp, at 17:00 UAE time.
FIFA says it remains in “regular contact with Qatar” after six Arab countries, including the UAE, cut diplomatic ties with the World Cup 2022 hosts, accusing it of destabilising the region.
The Emirates were joined by fellow Arab nations Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya in severing links over its alleged support of Islamist terrorist groups and relations with Iran. The Maldives also followed suit.
Qatar called the decision “unjustified” and with “no basis in fact”.
Football’s world governing body, in an emailed statement, said it had spoke with “the Qatar 2022 Local Organising Committee and the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy handling matters relating to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.”
FIFA added: “We have no further comments for the time being.”
The UAE have given Qatari diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, while airlines Etihad, Emirates and Fly Dubai said they are to cancel flights to and from the Qatari capital Doha.
The fallout in Gulf sporting circles has been both staggered and startling. Saudi football giants Al Ahli Jeddah announced on their Twitter feed that they had terminated a sponsorship contract between the club and Qatar Airways.
Reputable Middle East football website Ahdaaf, meanwhile, tweeted that Saudi national team players and staff “have been banned from speaking to and appearing on Qatar-owned sports broadcasters beIN Sports and Al Kass”, while beIN programming was suspended across the UAE yesterday.
Although there is much to be deliberated to resolve the situation, these actions could have an impact on Qatar’s future involvement with cross-border sporting competitions in the Gulf – including the AFC Champions League and the participation of the Qatar Stars League clubs.
It could also severely impact Doha, who regularly compete with UAE-based rugby clubs in the West Asia Premiership and Dubai Sevens.
Jebel Ali Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn said: “Of course the first priority is safety for everyone in Qatar and I hope very much that this situation sorts itself out by the time the season starts.
“’I’m sure it’s a very difficult time for all expats in Qatar, including the big rugby community there. It would certainly devalue the competition if they were not involved (next season). I think everyone in the West Asia Premiership hopes it is sorted swiftly and we can all get on with the rugby.”
Abu Dhabi Saracens chairman Jay Danielson added: “Obviously it would be disappointing for the Doha guys to have the opportunity to play against the best teams in the region taken away.
“It’s hard to say what impact it would have on the competition as the UAE teams are just getting stronger and stronger every year. Let’s hope the political situation can be peacefully resolved and everyone can get back to the business of enjoying their rugby.”
Louie Tonkin, whose Bahrain team enjoy a fierce yet friendly rival with neighbouring Doha, added: “It looks very serious and more is being affected than rugby but from our point of view we hope it comes to a solution so they can compete.
“They’re a huge part of the West Asia Premiership and been one of the biggest clubs in the Gulf. They’re our biggest rivals and we love playing against them. The league would be worse off for it but in the scope of things it’s minimal at the moment.”
While sudden, the severing of ties has not come completely out of the blue. Two weeks ago, the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain blocked Qatari news sites, including Al Jazeera.
As recently as 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar for several months in protest over alleged interference in their affairs.