Andrew Smith: Things are all looking a bit Messi

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Albicelestes in crisis as Sampaoli’s critics circle like vultures, writes Andrew Smith

There was nothing pretty about Argentina’s implosion against Croatia the other night. That extended to the sight of their squat, shaven-headed, tattoo-covered coach Jorge Sampaoli pacing his technical area like a seething club bouncer desperate to find a skull to crack.

Lionel Messi, second from right, Sergio Aguero, left, and Javier Mascherano arrive for a training session in Bronnitsy. Picture: AP Photo

Lionel Messi, second from right, Sergio Aguero, left, and Javier Mascherano arrive for a training session in Bronnitsy. Picture: AP Photo

By the end of a 3-0 scudding that brought calls throughout the nation to call time on his tenure even as their team find themselves in the World Cup last chance saloon, it was the 58-year-old’s head that was left pounding.

It was open season on Sampaoli even before Argentina touched down in Russia and with criticisms that have proven to be well-founded. Writ large in the lacklustre 1-1 draw with Iceland that gave way to their heaviest group stage defeat at a finals for 60 years – a loss that left Argentina without a win in their first two games at a tournament since 1974 – were the issues highlighted in the approach of Sampaoli, his country’s third coach in two years.

The absence of a go-to system was typified by his switching from a back four to a back three between the first and second games. The absence of a plan other than the hope that all-time great Lionel Messi would be capable of bailing them out was shown up in Argentina failing as the Barcelona attacker proved unable to produce telling interventions.

And the absence of a connection with his players has been betrayed by their unwillingness to offer him any public support.

If there is any crumb of comfort for an Argentine populace in ferment over a thus-far abject showing in Russia it is that for their impending must-win game they face opponents they would have hand-picked for such an assignment.

The South Americans must triumph over Nigeria on Tuesday – while they hope the in-form Croatia at least draw with Iceland – to squeak through as runners-ups in Group D. Nigeria will be facing up to Argentina for the fifth time in six appearances at the World Cup finals. They have lost every one of their previous four – in 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014.

Against that, it would be argued that never before will the Africans have met such a sorry Argentine side. That is certainly the view of Ossie Ardiles, who lacerated the current national team this week as the worst in the country’s history.

His most damning comments were reserved for Sampaoli himself, whose high-pressing game that proved so successful for Chile has been nowhere in evidence in his current role.

Ardiles, who was a World Cup winner with his country when they hosted in 1978, seemed to take particular exception to Sampaoli stating after the Croatia clattering that the way his team has been playing “clouds Messi’s brilliance” and that the side “doesn’t gel as well as it should”. Ardiles’ retort to that was to slate Sampaoli as “dreadful, arrogant and ignorant”.

From afar, the Argentina coach may be a hard man to feel sympathy for. However, Ardiles’ denunciations would seem to involve a certain amount of double-speak. If the squad is as deficient as he claims, then that is hardly the fault of the coach.

The band of over-30s in the Argentina set-up, Messi included, have simply not delivered and it is too easy to lay the blame for that entirely at Sampaoli’s door.

This looks a tournament too far for 33-year-old Javier Mascherano, now playing his club football in China. His country’s most-capped player with 145 appearances, he has looked ponderous and ineffective in his two outings in Russia. Sergio Aguero seems to have taken the hump, meanwhile, and Gonzalo Higuain has always been somewhat erratic on the biggest stage.

As for the Ardiles charge that Sampoali is arrogant, there was not a sign of this in his extensive mea culpa in his post-match media conference on Thursday night.

“Everything that happened to this team in terms of the lack of performance has to do with the leader. And I take responsibility for that,” he said. “I take responsibility for not reading the match properly. Our plan didn’t prosper. There is shame, pain, at not delivering for the Argentine people. It’s been a long time since I felt like this, and now it’s happening with the shirt of my own country. It hurts badly.”

It is far from beyond the bounds of possibility that Argentina could stagger into the next round. The fact that France would then likely face them down suggests Sampaoli and a number of his players won’t be staggering on in their international domain for too much longer.