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 defiant coach Jorge Sampaoli.
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 Argentina opened with a 1-1 draw against Iceland saw calls for Sampaoli to be sacked amid reports of player unrest at his tactics and team selection.
But after a tumultuous week, including meetings between the squad, coach and Argentine FA president Claudio 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.”
Messi, who turned 31 on Sunday, could be making his final World Cup appearance if Argentina fail to progress.
And Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said the Super Eagles will show no mercy for the Barcelona star, 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 Argentina 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 Argentinean 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.