Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli said his team have not supported Lionel Messi well enough at the 2018 FIFA World Cup after they were beaten 3-0 by Croatia on Thursday and that the Barcelona star should not be compared with Portugal talisman Cristiano Ronaldo as a result.
Messi cut an isolated figure as La Albiceleste put in a poor performance, which leaves them needing to beat Nigeria in their final match and hoping other results to go their way if they are to progress from the group.
Per Goal's Patric Ridge, Sampaoli said:
"Ronaldo is an excellent player, you can look at all he has achieved in his career.
"Right now, we shouldn't compare these two players. With the reality of the Argentina squad, it sort of clouds Leo's brilliance.
"He's limited because the team doesn't gel with him ideally, as it should."
Ronaldo has found the net four times in two games, while it's fair to say Messi has not lit up the tournament in Russia as hoped.
While he did not play that badly against Iceland in their 1-1 draw—he looked like the only Argentina player capable of snatching a winner—he missed a penalty and was not as clinical as usual in front of goal. Against Croatia, he was anonymous for large periods, having been effectively taken out of the game by the opposition.
Sampaoli has a point, though. Despite their impressive collection of attacking talent, Messi is the only one to consistently produce for the national side.
By contrast, while Ronaldo is a cut above his Portugal team-mates, they are a more cohesive unit who can get the best out of him and even succeed when he's not on the pitch, as they did in the UEFA Euro 2016 final.
As Soccer Laduma's David Kappel noted, Messi almost singlehandedly dragged Argentina through qualifying to reach the tournament, but his team-mates have not returned the favour at the World Cup:
David Kappel @kappilinho
#Messi dragged #Argentina to the #WorldCup, scoring seven goals, including three in a must-win against Ecuador. 6 our of Argentina’s 7 wins in qualifiers came with Messi on the pitch. They collected 19 points in 10 games with him and and only 7 in 8 games without him. #ARGCRO
David Kappel @kappilinho
#Sampaoli set up his #Argentina side to support #Messi. But it was full with players, who were 1) unable to play the ball to Messi (no player made more than two passes to him in 1st 45 vs #CRO) and 2) couldn’t make something happen when the whole defence was focussed on Messi...
The manager also bears responsibility for that, and he did so after the defeat. "It's not the boss' partial responsibility—it's his total responsibility," he said, per MailOnline's Matthew Smith.
"If I'd planned things differently, it would have worked out differently. I honestly thought the plan for this match was going to put pressure on the opponent. But after the disaster of the first goal, it was tough, we were lost emotionally.
"Our driving force is Leo, but we couldn't find him. We work as a team to get the ball to Leo, but also the other team works to avoid that."
Sergio Aguero, who was substituted for Gonzalo Higuain—who has not scored for Argentina since 2016—early in the second half, did not respond well after being somewhat inaccurately told by TyC Sports that his manager blamed the team for not adhering to his tactics, per Goal.
"He can say what he wants" was all the striker had to say on the manage, before he cut short a post-match interview.
As Goal's Dan Edwards noted, things have gone downhill fast since they reached the final of the last World Cup:
Sampaoli has failed to foster an environment that gets the best out of Messi, but he's the fourth manager La Albiceleste have had since the start of 2014, and the Argentine Football Association has had the same number of presidents in that time.
Their only warm-up game for the tournament came against Haiti, with planned friendlies against Israel and Nicaragua cancelled because of safety concerns, so that hardly made for ideal preparation, either.
Argentina may yet reach the knockout phase—and they will almost certainly have Messi to thank if they do—but given the systemic problems in Argentinian football on and off the pitch, it's difficult to see them going any further if they even get that far.