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SPORTS | 25-06-2018 23:24

Pressure mounts on Sampaoli as Argentina's World Cup D-day arrives

Franco Armani is tipped to replace Willy Caballero for the Nigeria clash after the Chelsea goalkeeper's blunder against Croatia, with Sampaoli also expected to ditch his three-match defence and return to a traditional back four.

Argentina's do-or-die clash against Nigeria on Tuesday can be a launch pad for the team in Russia following a woeful start to the World Cup, insisted a defiant Jorge Sampaoli yesterday, as pressure continued to mount on the under-fire coach.

Failure to beat the Africans will prolong Lionel Messi's wait to win an international trophy, with the added humiliation of bowing out at the group stages without even winning a game. A 3-0 thrashing by Croatia after the Albiceleste opened with a 1-1 draw against Iceland saw calls for Sampaoli to be sacked amid lurid reports of player unrest at his tactics and team selection.

But after a tumultuous week, including meetings between the squad, coach and Argentine Football Assocation (AFA) President Claudio 'Chiqui' Tapia in recent days, Sampaoli tried to put a positive spin on the team's fate.

"We have to make our goal five games to reach the final. Tomorrow will be the first final," Sampaoli told reporters on the eve of the game in Saint Petersburg. "No matter who plays tomorrow will have the obligation to give until the last bead of sweat so that Argentina will go through. We don't have any alternative and I am sure this is how it will go. Tomorrow, I am sure that they will see the best version of Argentina at this World Cup."

Sampaoli has been fiercely criticised for his inability to find a system to get the best out of Messi, but hit back at his treatment from what he described as press living in a "virtual world."

"Losing a game of football makes you a loser. Sometimes in the virtual world, it makes you feel like a criminal for having lost a game of football."

No mercy for Messi

Messi, who turned 31 on Sunday, could be making his final World Cup appearance if Argentina fail to progress. It could even be his last game for the national team – the Barcelona star has already retired from international football once, before reversing his decision.

Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said the Super Eagles will show no mercy for the Messi, despite their admiration for his talent.

"We love this great player, Messi, everybody loves him," said Rohr. "The question is not if it is the last World Cup for him or not, the question is for us to be qualified.

"We are not here to watch him playing. We are here to make a result, we are professionals. We are here to defend the colours of Nigeria and we know in football there is no mercy, no pity. Everybody wants to win and we cannot make any gifts even if we like very much this player."

Nigerian defender Brian Idowu admitted he would love Messi's shirt as a memento, but also wants to send the Albiceleste packing.

"Our main goal is that it will be Messi's last World Cup game, as much as footballers we love watching him play," said Idowu, who was born in Saint Petersburg and still plays his club football in Russia for Amkar Perm. "I would love of course to swap jerseys with him but I would love to swap jerseys with many players in the Argentine side."

Nigeria moved into second place in Group D behind already qualified Croatia by beating Iceland 2-0 thanks to an Ahmed Musa double.

However, that victory came at a cost as captain John Obi Mikel suffered a fracture in his left hand that means he will be forced to wear a cast if he is to face Argentina.

Victory against the Africans, who Argentina have beaten in all four previous World Cup meetings, will secure qualification for the last 16 as long as Iceland don't shock already-qualified Croatia. Even if Iceland claim a first ever World Cup victory, the Albiceleste could still progress on goal difference.

However, bouncing back will take a huge improvement in performance and strength of character so far unseen from the two-time world champions in Russia.

Relentless pressure

The pressure has been relentless for both Sampaoli and the squad. 

Last week veteran midfielder Javier Mascherano insisted relations between the players and Sampaoli are not strained after repeated reports of unrest within the team camp.

"The relationship with the coach is completely normal," Mascherano said ahead of the must-win match against Nigeria in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, dismissing reports he was exerting an overly large influence on the squad and team selection.

"Obviously, when we feel uncomfortable about something we speak with him because if we didn't we would be hypocrites."

"We know the situation is tricky," Mascherano said. "We have to be united, to express our opinions, and do everything possible so the team goes into the game in the best position."

The rumours, however, continue to grow, sparked in part by some of the national team's famous former sons.

"I get the feeling there's a general anger at the heart of the team," said legendary 1986 World Cup-winning captain Diego Maradona, who is appearing daily on a show in Venezuela.

"I'm furious and very upset inside, because anyone who wore that shirt can't see it being trampled like that by a Croatian team that isn't Germany, that isn't Brazil, that isn't Holland or Spain."

In their hour of need, Argentina need Messi's best once more.

"Leo is fine," insisted Mascherano, who knows Messi better than most having spent eight years as his club team-mate at Barcelona. "He is a human being who has his frustrations because things haven't worked out, but so are we all. Like it our not, we are the runners-up from the World Cup and we have to show it."

Sampaoli look set to shake-up the team's backline after the disappointing performances in Russia so far.

Franco Armani is tipped to replace Willy Caballero for the Nigeria clash after the Chelsea goalkeeper's blunder against Croatia, with Sampaoli also expected to ditch his three-match defence and return to a traditional back four.

- TIMES/AFP

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