Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli backed “genius” Lionel Messi to achieve his World Cup dream by building a starting XI around the Barca maestro and naming it 24 hours before Saturday’s clash with Iceland.
Reporters at pre-match press conferences often ask coaches to reveal their teams but rarely expect an answer.
The 58-year-old Argentine, who has been linked with Chelsea, is not like most managers, though, and he shocked the Spartak Stadium’s packed media room by picking up a piece of paper and rattling off 11 names.
The key name was not Messi, however, it was Meza, Maximiliano Meza.
A midfielder with Argentina’s Independiente, the 25-year-old is hardly known outside South America – and the Group D opener will be only his third cap – but picking Meza over Juve playmaker Paulo Dybala or young striker Cristian Pavon means Messi is the undisputed heart of this team.
“Meza was the person we were looking for because he gives us versatility and he allows us to recover the ball,” said Sampaoli, who has been in
charge of the two-time World Cup champions for a year after successful stints with Chile and Sevilla.
“He is ready and he is as good as any player in the squad. He might not be involved in so many elite games but he really understands what Argentine
And the answer to that, according to Sampaoli, is simple: let Leo do his thing. This has led many Argentine pundits to suggest this is Messi’s
team in every sense.
Sampaoli has practically admitted this in the past, but in Moscow on Friday, he tried to explain what he meant.
“It’s true that the coach organises the team – we know how to set up teams to find situations,” he said.
“But if you have a player like Messi, the coach’s job is to arrange the team around him. So if you have a player like Leo, you organise the team
This would make perfect sense to anybody who has seen the 30-year-old orchestrating affairs for Barca, but he has found it harder to lift Argentina
to the same heights and some believe this is his last chance to emulate the man he is most often benchmarked against at home, not Cristiano Ronaldo but Diego Maradona.
Sampaoli rejected this notion, though, saying the superstar has plenty more in the tank.
“Messi is very fit and is really looking forward to this World Cup,” he said.
“He’s hoping to achieve his dream here and he’s very skilled. He should not be under pressure because he makes people very happy with his game.
“And I don’t think this should be his last World Cup, not with his skills and the professional way he plays. He should be the one who decides that
– he’s a genius.”
A genius with a fine supporting cast, many of whom are well known to British fans.
In front of Chelsea’s Willy Caballero, will be a back four of Benfica’s Eduardo Salvio, Nicolas Tagliafico of Ajax, Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi and Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo.
Patrolling midfield will be ex-Liverpool and West Ham star Javier Mascherano and AC’s Lucas Biglia, with Meza and ex-United winger Angel di Maria providing width, City goal machine Sergio Aguero furthest forward and Messi going wherever his muse takes him.
Sampaoli denied naming his team so early showed a lack of respect for Iceland, who he said would be compact, tough and quick to counter-attack,
he just did not see the need “to hide it”.
Iceland, of course, is a nation with the smallest population to reach the World Cup and they will be making their debut on this stage. Argentina’s experience and expectations are very different.
“Argentinians are very demanding in football, we know that,” said Sampaoli.
“I know exactly what I was wearing in 1986 (when Maradona inspired the team to glory) but I don’t remember what I was wearing last month. We are
a country that puts everything into football and I’m sure we’ll have 40 million people following us tomorrow.”