June 20, 2018 / 4:29 PM / a month ago

Soccer-'Lay off Messi', says Argentina coach before Croatia clash

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia, June 20 (Reuters) - Argentina’s coach urged fans on Wednesday to stop blaming Lionel Messi when games do not go to script and instead appreciate all their captain has done for the national side over the years.

Messi was furious with himself for missing a penalty in the South Americans’ opener against Iceland, which ended 1-1 in an inauspicious start for what may be his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona’s feat of winning a World Cup for Argentina.

“When Argentina don’t win, we attribute responsibility to Leo. I think that’s too easy a way for Argentinians to think,” smarted Jorge Sampaoli in a news conference on the eve of their next Group D game, against Croatia.

“There were lots of factors of irritation for not winning against Iceland. There are 40 of us at this World Cup. The team will be together when things go well and when things go badly.”

Under pressure himself after an underwhelming year in charge of Argentina despite an extraordinary array of individual talent at his disposal, Sampaoli was bombarded with questions about his controversial use of three central defenders.

He insisted it gave him flexibility to adapt against different opponents, but acknowledged Argentina needed to be more “elastic” in their play.

Their next opponents Croatia comfortably dispatched Nigeria 2-0 in their first game, putting themselves in pole position to go through. “It’s going to be difficult. Croatia have a generation of outstanding players who have just won,” Sampaoli said.

While much has been made of Argentina’s over-dependence on their out-and-out star, who turns 31 this weekend and may well be at his last World Cup, Sampaoli said fortunately the obsession with Messi also destabilised others.

“When he has two or three opponents trying to block him, somewhere on the pitch a teammate is free, as happened against Iceland,” he said. “We need to take advantage of that.”

Sampaoli also appealed to Argentines to stop arguing about whether Messi is better or worse than Maradona, who won the World Cup in 1986, and appreciate both men’s contributions to their nation’s sporting history.

“They are different. Their contexts are different,” he said, urging fans to look at the overall record of Messi, who is Argentina’s all-time stop scorer. “With Leo, Argentina have only lost three or four games ... He’s a national hero, as Diego was.” (Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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