Messi needed his Santos with Argentina - not Sampaoli's muddled mess
Fernando Santos is not generally the most jovial press conference participant but the experienced Portugal head coach could not resist having a chuckle at his own expense after last week's laboured 1-0 World Cup win over Morocco.
Once again, Cristiano Ronaldo was his country's match-winner – moving on to four goals in two matches at Russia 2018 and Santos was asked what the reasons were behind his star's clinical efficiency.
"Well, he has a great coach," the 63-year-old replied before briefly collapsing into giggles. A eulogy comparing Port wine and Ronaldo's improvements with age followed.
Whether the Euro 2016 winner is a truly great coach remains up for debate, but at this stage of Ronaldo's career and with this Portugal squad he is indisputably the right one.
Amid the endless comparisons between the two greatest footballers on the planet, this is definitely an area where Ronaldo has the edge over Lionel Messi.
Blind faith in genius
According to Jorge Sampaoli when he the addressed the media ahead of Argentina's do-or-die Group D match against Nigeria in St Petersburg, Messi will come to the fore "for the good of Argentina" in a match where he is "totally convinced that the team will go onto the pitch with great energy to secure a victory."
Given the fortunes of the team and their star man at this World Cup – Messi missed a penalty in the 1-1 draw against Iceland before residing on the periphery of a wretched 3-0 loss to Croatia – these felt like pronouncements of blind faith.
7 & 20 - The two Argentina players with the fewest touches in the first half vs Croatia are Sergio Aguero (7) and Lionel Messi (20). Wasted. #ARG #ARGCRO #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/WcXMFTVrSA
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 21, 2018
Sampaoli will reportedly make five changes to his starting line-up against Nigeria, including an international debut for goalkeeper Franco Armani, and use a third tactical system as many matches, having seen claims of a players' revolt denied by his federation.
Contrast that with a Portugal, where you know exactly what you are going to get – a grizzled experienced defence helmed by Pepe and Jose Fonte, protected by a compact midfield two, with Ronaldo and his supporting cast in attack left to do the rest.
Such simplicity, such a platform for genius has seldom been enjoyed by Messi with Argentina. Sampaoli was supposed to be the answer but the question simply seems more perplexing by the day.
A patriotic turn away from the elite
After steering Chile to Copa America glory in 2015 and an acclaimed, if brief, stint at Sevilla, the 58-year-old's appointment last year was significant coup.
Elite coaching talents tend not to reside in the international game nowadays. You might happen upon a wily veteran such as Santos or a bright and developing enthusiast like Gareth Southgate, but Europe's major clubs are where the most significant riches lie and where reputations are made.
52 - Sampaoli has collected the same number of points through 24 La Liga fixtures as Unai Emery did last season. Revolution pic.twitter.com/5vJXW21R7o
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 27, 2017
Sampaoli had been linked to Chelsea and appeared primed to enter that circle but the pull of Argentina, of Messi and the remanence of their acclaimed youth generation of the previous decade finally putting it all together on the biggest stage proved irresistible.
Born 30 miles away from Messi's home city of Rosario, Sampaoli also had the appeal of being a disciple of the great Argentine coaching maverick Marcelo Bielsa, who was also a shaping influence upon his captain's mentor Pep Guardiola.
In fairness, Sampaoli inherited a shambolic situation as the third head coach of a stumbling CONMEBOL qualifying campaign after Gerardo Martino and Edgardo Bauza. Messi had briefly retired from international football in between Martino and Bauza's tenures when penalty shootout heartache in the Copa America Centanario final followed the same fate in the 2015 edition and 2014 World Cup final defeat.
By the same token, improvements should be easy to spot from this starting point and they are not. Argentina only reached Russia 2018 when Messi turned in arguably the finest performance in a career stacked with great deeds.
¡Que tengan un #BuenMiércoles, albicelestes! pic.twitter.com/5z7w5NEcnj
— Selección Argentina (@Argentina) October 11, 2017
His hat-trick to secure a 3-1 win from a goal down against Ecuador at Quito's sapping altitude almost defied belief, but relying on the 31-year-old to turn water into wine every time he sets foot on the field is not a viable strategy for World Cup success. It still appears to be the only settled one Argentina have.
Having decided he did not have the squad to approximate Biesla's famed 3-3-1-3, Sampaoli promptly thrust it upon his players against Croatia. They at least proved his fears correct in that regard.
All change for Nigeria
Now it is expected to be 4-3-3 against Nigeria, with Messi on the right side of an attack featuring finals culprit Gonzalo Higuain and not his great mate Sergio Aguero.
Angel Di Maria should come back but Javier Mascherano's undignified battle with the sands of time at the base of the midfield is set to continue.
“The whole team is frustrated, not just Leo Messi. We can’t put all this on Leo”@Mascherano ahead of #NGAARG pic.twitter.com/9yyJ766arz
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 26, 2018
Portugal were able to secure a last-16 spot on Monday despite Ronaldo missing a penalty, losing his temper and surviving a VAR red card review. Santos' men were able to survive against Iran even though their great inspiration faltered.
If Messi does likewise at Krestovsky Stadium, it is impossible to see anything but defeat for Argentina. The weight Sampaoli was supposed to shift still accompanies every swipe of that majestic left boot.