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Sampaoli calls on Messi’s team-mates to prove Argentina worth

Moscow (AFP) – Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli called on his side to show they can cope without Lionel Messi, ahead of the friendly with 2018 World Cup hosts Russia in Moscow on Saturday.

Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi scored a hat-trick as Argentina clinched a place for next year’s finals with a 3-1 win at Ecuador in their final qualifier last month.

The 30-year-old is set to play at the newly-renovated Luzhniki Stadium against Russia, but will sit out of Tuesday’s game with Nigeria in Krasnodar after an agreement between the Argentinian federation and his club side Barcelona.

“We need to find a strategy that will help us to strike a balance,” Sampaoli told a press conference on Friday.

“If Messi is out of the game, the team need to demonstrate the same kind of performance.

“Definitely, we will give him some rest if we feel there’s some massive fatigue. He doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. But he’s never asked not to play, because it’s a happiness for him.”

Despite their struggles to score in qualifying, Argentina boast a host of attacking options with Manchester City’s record goalscorer Sergio Aguero and Juventus forward Paulo Dybala also in the squad.

But Sampaoli again left out Juve forward Gonzalo Higuain, after dropping him for the last four qualifiers.

The former Chile coach, who has given 21-year-old Paris-Saint Germain midfielder Giovani Lo Celso a maiden call-up, said he needs to find a player with pace to complement Messi.

“We need to find a fast player that can play near Messi,” he said.

“We definitely need to find a player who will be able to resist the external pressure, when all the media focuses on Lionel (Messi).

“And we need to find a strategy that will help us to strike a balance. If Messi is out of the game, the team need to demonstrate the same kind of performance.”

But the 57-year-old Sampaoli, who led Chile to the 2015 Copa America title, said he would not make wholesale changes to the side before the World Cup.

“We need to rely on what we have already,” Sampaoli added. “We cannot experiment too much. We need to convince our players to move in the right direction.

“I might look calm but I was very nervous and concerned. I was afraid that we would miss the World Cup and the strategy was to look as confident as possible. 

“Now we’re qualified, we need to pick up good players, be in shape and become the team that will win the World Cup.”

– Russia ready for tough test –

Saturday’s encounter will be only the second meeting between the teams in the post-Soviet era, after a 3-2 Argentina win in 2009.

The Russians have played just three competitive matches since being dumped out of Euro 2016 in the group phase, when they also failed to make the knockout stage at June’s Confederations Cup on home soil.

Russia are unbeaten in their last five friendlies –- scoring 12 goals in the process.

But now Stanislav Cherchesov’s side will face a real test against three of the best teams in the world in consecutive matches.

Russia follow the Argentina game by taking on Spain on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg, before welcoming Brazil to Moscow in March.

But Cherchesov insisted that he considered the Argentina clash to be just another warm-up outing.

“It’s not our first match against World Cup finalists,” Cherchesov said.

“We’ve already played Belgium, Portugal and Mexico. Our preparations for the World Cup are taking their normal course. And there was nothing special at our training ahead of this match.

“My men are currently in a good mood. And I think the best thing I can do with just a day remaining before kick-off is to leave them alone.”

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