Jorge Sampaoli optimistic after Diego Maradona criticises Argentina
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli reassured fans his national team will be "very competitive" at the 2018 World Cup despite criticism from Diego Maradona following Friday's draw.
After the Albiceleste were placed in Group D with Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria. Argentina legend Diego Maradona, who helped conduct the draw, expressed reservations over his country's prospects.
"Argentina cannot play any worse than they are doing," he told TYC Sports. "Argentina have a manageable group but they have to improve."
When asked about Maradona's remarks, Sampaoli said: "I hope we have the possibility during this time to train and play better. I think in certain moments in qualifying we gave a glimpse of what we want but we need to use this time to obviously improve."
Argentina did not book their spot in Russia until their final qualifier, a 3-1 win at Ecuador on Oct. 10, with captain Lionel Messi scoring a hat trick. The country went into that game in danger of missing out not only on direct qualification but a spot in the playoffs.
Messi and Argentina have lost three straight finals at major competitions in a three-year span, with the first coming at the 2014 World Cup against Germany.
And despite being drawn against three teams who have never won the World Cup, Sampaoli, who replaced sacked Edgardo Bauza in May, anticipates a challenging campaign for his side.
Sampaoli said: "These are rivals that are coming with few obligations and a lot of enthusiasm for a unique opportunity as the World Cup is. They are going to make us fight but it will depend on us. We need to establish a way and be the Argentina we want to be.
"Island will make us work, as everyone else. Nigeria is unpredictable, they are very fast. We need to study them well."
Sampaoli also said he considers Croatia the toughest opponent, adding: "Croatia has an excellent midfield line with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic. They also have [Mario] Madzukic as a No. 9. They are very strong."
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic acknowledged that Argentina would be favoured to win the group.
"It could have been better but it could also have been worse," he said. "I think we can navigate our way into the knockout stages but it's going to be tough... [Argentina] are the favourites of course but we won't roll over."
Iceland will be the smallest nation to ever play in a World Cup, and Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson admitted they will have their work cut out for them.
"This is an incredibly difficult group," he said. "This will be an experience but really difficult.
"Argentina have one of the strongest squads in football... the Nigerian players are great athletes, physically strong and it's difficult to cope with them."
Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson joked that he wanted a divorce from Croatia, after they were drawn together again after also facing off in the UEFA qualifying campaign, with each side winning at home. "We seem to be a married couple," he said.
Despite having to face Messi, Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo was pleased to avoid the other giants of world football.
"I am happy that we are not going to play Brazil and Germany in the first round," he said. "With this draw, we have a good chance of qualifying from the group. It's a tough group and we have to work really hard."
Adriana Garcia is a Valencia-based football writer who covers La Liga for ESPN FC.