KAZAN ARENA, Russian Federation, Jun 29 – Coach Jorge Sampaoli has called on Argentina to lift their game to the level of “genius” Lionel Messi when they look to seal a World Cup quarter-final place with victory over France on Saturday.
The tone of Argentina’s so far ragged bid for the title was set when Messi missed a penalty in the shock opening 1-1 draw with Iceland.
The 31-year-old Barcelona great was then virtually invisible during a chastening 3-0 defeat to Croatia that exposed weaknesses in Argentina’s defence and a lack of potency in attack.
It took a great touch of control, following a superb pass from teammate Ever Banega, for Messi to finally open his account in Russia in the 2-1 win over Nigeria only sealed by Marcos Rojo’s 86th minute volley.
Despite Messi’s problems in the tournament, under-fire Sampaoli suggested his teammates had to give “the best player on earth” as much help as possible.
“Leo has such clear vision when it comes to football that he allows us to see things that, sometimes, only a true genius sees,” said Sampaoli.
“It’s often difficult to be at the level of such a great player. He’s a shining light for us all, and we have to do our very best to all try to be at his level.”
Sevilla midfielder Banega claimed Messi has now hit his stride.
“It’s only normal – he wasn’t relaxed, we didn’t start the tournament as well as we should have.
“Now, I see him a lot more comfortable now. He helped us win, and that makes a big difference.”
But with Portuguese rival Cristiano Ronaldo racing ahead in the scoring charts on four goals so far, and England’s Harry Kane on five goals in just two matches, Messi risks finishing this World Cup with a whimper.
France’s team, whose average age is 25, will be looking to awake from their recent slumber and Sampaoli, whose side’s average age is 30, underlined the danger of allowing the France to dictate play.
As France look to underperforming striker Antoine Griezmann to lift his game, Sampaoli underlined a bigger threat in 19-year-old Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Kylian Mbappe, who struck France’s match winner in a 1-0 win over Peru, and 21-year-old Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele.
“France are known for being fast, their solid passing and moving quickly from defence to attack, and we can’t let them use their speed against us,” he said.
“They will try to make us make mistakes, and try to hurt us on the wings. If Dembele and Mbappe play, they will be very fast for sure.
“The key, for both teams, will be the actual game of passing and football.
“We have two completely different styles but I have faith we will impose our own style and dictate the pace and rhythm of the game.”
But, he added: “Argentina will play an aggressive style of football, we’re going to attack from kick-off.
“Accepting defeat would be very difficult for us.”