Can even Messi save Sampaoli's Argentina?

Comments
The No.10 missed his country's friendly with Italy on Friday night and his absence laid bare the myriad problems facing the World Cup hopefuls

In the build-up to Friday's lifeless game against Italy in Manchester, Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli hammered the point home that he needs chemistry on the pitch, for his players to understand each other, if they are to win the World Cup this summer.

During a marathon 45-minute press conference, Sampaoli was surprisingly candid as he fielded questions on all things Argentina.

After leaving Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi out of his squad yet again, Sampaoli insisted that, quite frankly, they are not doing what he wants or needs.

"Icardi's case is similar to Dybala's," he said. "There's a big difference between his performances at Inter and for Argentina. I'm not ruling him out for the World Cup but we are working in the short-term and you have to prioritise the relationships on the pitch." 

After being parachuted in to rescue Argentina's qualifying campaign (which he just about managed), Sampaoli certainly is working in the short-term; after this game his men will face Spain on Tuesday, and they will not meet again until a couple of as-yet-unannounced friendlies shortly before they travel to Russia.

The most alarming thing is not that he does not have much time to put together a side as cohesive as his punchy Chile outfit, but that he is seemingly starting from a base of absolutely zero. 

Argentina found second-half goals to beat Italy but it should be remembered that the Azzurri have now failed to score in their last three games, and have just three goals in total in their last seven games. 

They are in more trouble than Argentina, and if they had somehow found a way to reach the World Cup you would fear for them too.

What Sampaoli will now reflect on is that, despite the victory, the relationships that he wants were hardly ever evident in any area of the pitch. He has players capable of moments of brilliance but the other favourites, namely Spain, Brazil and Germany, have world-class players who understand the systems they are asked to play and have been in that position for some time now.

Argentina, Sampaoli also admitted, is "as much Messi's team" as his, and he is right about that. For too long now this most historic of footballing nations has simply resembled Messi and 10 others, but that charge is more accurate now than it ever has been.

Ever Banega Argentina Italy

Javier Mascherano is in the squad in spirit if not in body; he can be a leader in the dressing room but no longer on the pitch. Carlos Tevez, who many Argentines had for so long favoured above Messi, is understandably now out of the picture as well. Pablo Zabaleta is another in the same boat.

The players Sampaoli does have to choose from are not of the same class or character.

And then consider that many of them aren't even playing. Never mind the fact that their two most senior goalkeepers don't get a look-in for their clubs; one of them, Willy Caballero, was only making his international debut here at the Etihad Stadium. He is 36 years old.

Fabricio Bustos, the 21-year-old Independiente right-back, was also handed his debut, and regular watchers of his progress noted how he looked shocked to be deprived of the kind of time and space he is afforded in the Argentine Primera Division. On the other flank, Nicolas Tagliafico was handed his second appearance. Were it not for Nicolas Otamendi, who has improved dramatically since the start of the season, the defence would look incredibly flaky, even with Sevilla's Gabriel Mercado to come back in.

Mascherano's absence in midfield is most starkly highlighted by the presence of Lucas Biglia and Leandro Paredes, two functional options but far from what is needed in the heat of a World Cup battle. As talented as he is, and regardless of his goal, you could put Ever Banega in the same bracket.

And with Sergio Aguero injured and Icardi and Dybala out of the picture, all that is left up front are Angel Di Maria, another player capable of the odd flash of brilliance but prone to shocking wastefulness, and Gonzalo Higuain, who, like Aguero, is target for the Argentina boo boys, who have seen the Juventus man miss too many chances when it really matters.

There are talented players beyond that, like Manuel Lanzini, who scored a nice goal here; Lautaro Martinez, perhaps the next big thing; Marcos Acuna, capable of eye-catching individual moments. But, really, it is not a hugely inspiring list. Maybe the saving grace from this performance is that Dybala and Icardi will now get another chance.

Okay, the game with Italy was a friendly, but there was no sign of that chemistry which Sampaoli is desperate to see. The most confident combination was seen when Caballero, Otamendi and Federico Fazio passed it between themselves at the back in the first half. But what after that? Not a lot.

Article continues below

Sampaoli also said on Thursday that Messi makes everybody around him play better. That is clearly true. He is that good.

But with Argentina lacking the kind of relationships between basically every other member of the squad, how much better can Messi really make them?

After 58 minutes here at the Etihad Stadium, after the Mexican waves had died down, the fans started chanting for the absent Messi. Watching this largely low-quality game, they missed him. More worryingly for Argentina, they missed him even more - and even he may not save them anyway.

Next article:
Hazard can reach his full potential with Sarri's Chelsea - Zola
Next article:
2019 Afcon qualifiers: Aliou Cisse defends Senegal squad for Sudan matches
Next article:
Who is Marcus Thuram? The son of France legend Lilian is Europe’s best dribbler this season
Next article:
‘England have got into his head’ – Given hits out at Southgate over Rice pursuit
Next article:
'Wow! What a manager he is' - Klopp hails Sarri after incredible Chelsea start
Close