Jorge Sampaoli has admitted Lionel Messi is limited by the current Argentina team, with the two-time World Cup winners facing possible early elimination after a 3-0 loss to Croatia.
The 1978 and 1986 champions could fail to make it out of their group in Russia having picked up just one point from their opening two games following Thursday night’s defeat against the Croatians, who have progressed to the last 16.
Ante Rebic opened the scoring with a second-half volley that was set up by Chelsea goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s error before midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic added late strikes.
Once again Messi, who had a penalty saved in the draw with Iceland last weekend, was largely anonymous in a tournament where his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo is leading the way to be top scorer.
Sampaoli was asked about comparisons between the two in his post-match press conference and conceded that Messi’s performances are being hindered by those around him.
“I think that because of the reality of the Argentine squad, it sort of clouds Leo’s brilliance,” he said.
“Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel ideally with him as it should. As coaches we need to realise these things and try to deal with them. I’m the one that needs to accept it.”
Croatia had been handed the lead by Caballero’s blunder as he chipped straight to Rebic to emphatically fire in.
Sampaoli had decided to choose Chelsea’s second-choice stopper between the sticks once Manchester United’s Sergio Romero had been ruled out through injury, and the Argentina boss refused to lay the blame at Caballero’s door.
“The key to our defeat relates to my responsibility because I’m the coach,” he stressed.
“I had to devise a plan for this match. Had I set things up differently, things might have turned out much better. I don’t think it’s realistic to put the burden on Caballero.”
Argentina face Nigeria in their last group game but know even a victory may not be enough to see them through.
Sampaoli was asked if he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his nation’s heaviest World Cup group stage loss since 1958.
“I definitely feel pain,” he replied.
“As a coach it’s been a long time since I’ve gone through this experience and obviously it’s much more painful when I’m wearing the jersey of my country.
“Our plan for this match didn’t work out. We have to put everything we have in the last opportunity we have to fight, give it our all.
“We have no other alternative. There’s pain because we weren’t at the level the Argentina people expected of us.”
Argentina looked tactically lost at times, with Croatia continually getting joy down both flanks in the first half before boss Zlatko Dalic’s ploy to press higher up the field paid dividends with Caballero’s mistake.
“We knew that the last three of Argentina were a bit weaker and they would break down under pressing,” Dalic revealed.
“The players did everything they were told. We had very good scouts analysing Argentina. We knew that they would play 3-4-3 and we adapted to that.”