The stars need to align for Argentina in the group finale if the country isn’t going to face the ultimate walk of shame out of the World Cup
“Tomorrow the World Cup begins for us, with the first of five finals. You will see the best of this team,” Jorge Sampaoli fired back in his final press conference after a tense week that saw Argentina on the brink of an exit, thrown a lifeline, fend off reports of fighting in the camp and deny a player-led coup.
An eventful week even by Argentinian standards but after a draw against Iceland and an embarrassing defeat to Croatia, La Albiceleste are at the last chance saloon – only victory over Nigeria on Tuesday will do (and hope that Iceland doesn’t defeat Croatia) if Sampaoli’s side are to progress.
“Tomorrow’s match will be vital. Both teams can advance. They will try to do everything to advance and this will make it more attractive.
“The defeat to Croatia was painful and it’s put us in a spot where we depend on a result but a few days have passed. I have taken responsibility for that loss.
“From the very next day, I just started to think about a victory over Nigeria. I am focused only on the next game and convinced that the team will go out to win,” Sampaoli stressed.
Argentina’s game face is well and truly on but the truth is that Sampaoli and his squad have had a lot more to contend with than just the defeat to Croatia.
Javier Mascherano faced the media on Sunday and the main topics of conversation were an alleged scrap between himself and teammate Cristian Pavón, leaked audio messages and a coup that had seen the players take control of all decisions, cutting out Jorge Sampaoli.
Both were denied and while he and Lucas Biglia focused on the Nigeria game, the anger and frustration with the nation’s media once more boiled over.
What is true is that Sampaoli met with the players and AFA president Claudio Tapia. Opinions were voiced and disagreements were aired but Mascherano and Sampaoli maintain that this was a natural process to move forward and achieve the best results.
“Even the best manager in the world consults his players because the players are the ones who end up taking decisions on the pitch. It’s the same with Argentina, Barcelona, or wherever,” Mascherano argued.
And it is after this exchange that will almost certainly see Argentina abandon once more Sampaoli’s back three and revert to a familiar-looking eleven for Nigeria.
Willy Caballero’s howler will finally hand Franco Armani his chance in goal, Ever Banega is expected to come back into the midfield and Angel Di Maria should reclaim his place on the left of a vintage front line with Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín.
Sampaoli wouldn’t confirm the starting eleven and while he was confident of the team in his own mind, the players weren’t yet informed. The coach made no secret of the meeting and has since been seen in discussions with Mascherano and others on the training pitch but like his players, Sampaoli responded to the incessant speculation.
“Personally, the virtual world doesn’t affect me at all. I try not to pay attention to the virtual world but I am aware that many people around are part of the virtual world.
“It’s not that easy to separate oneself. Sometimes, I do have to enter the virtual world to tell there are realities, facts that can’t be changed. I have to deal exclusively with the reality that Argentina didn’t win against Croatia. That complicated matters for our progression.
“Sometimes people in the virtual world make you feel like a criminal simply because you lost a game. If I were to think that I’ve got to immerse myself in the virtual world, I would have to throw in the towel and leave my position.”
What has gone on behind the scenes we may never know but for now, Sampaoli is in charge and Argentina still hold onto their dreams. Mascherano and many of his teammates from four years ago have another shot at immortality.
The rhetoric is of fresh starts and determination to succeed but that will only really be proved on the pitch. Nigeria harbour their own aspirations and may sink the final nail into Argentina’s coffin.