Lionel Messi ready to carry Argentina to World Cup glory - Jorge Sampaoli
MANCHESTER, England -- Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli has said Lionel Messi is now ready to take the burden of expectation to "carry" the country to World Cup glory, just as Diego Maradona did in 1986.
Argentina reached the final of the 2014 World Cup before losing 1-0 to Germany after extra-time. The Albiceleste also finished as runners-up in the 2015 and 2016 Copa America, but Sampaoli believes Messi can now help them to take the final step and win a tournament.
"This is going to be his team," Sampaoli told a news conference ahead of the friendly games against Italy and Spain. "He is the best of all and is in a stage of maturity that can he can carry the team on his shoulders. This is going to be his team."
While Italy won't be at the World Cup, Sampaoli believes they are still prestigious opponents and sees the friendly as an opportunity to send a message to their rivals at Russia 2018.
"Everyone gives us a leading role in the World Cup and my obligation is to increase that, to try to make the rivals fear us even more, today Argentina is very respected," he said.
"I see that the commitment of the players improves all the time, also the commitment for the idea, the players know they have to attack."
Sampaoli also spoke about Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, who is currently a doubt to feature because of injury.
Aguero will miss Argentina's friendly with Italy on Friday night because of a knee injury and is also unlikely to be risked for Tuesday's friendly with Spain.
The 29-year-old has been in blistering form since the turn of the year scoring 15 goals in 14 games but Sampaoli claims his best from was with Independiente, the Argentine club he left for Atletico Madrid in 2006.
"For Aguero this is a great moment -- although the best Aguero was the one at Independiente," Sampaoli said. "Messi and Aguero can complement each other very well.
"We've been talking to the doctors here at Manchester City and trying to evaluate his situation to see if he can play any part. It looks like he'll be sitting out the first one and we'll see about the second one.
"It will be hard for Aguero to play against Spain but we want to try. It's worth the effort. We've spoken to City about him -- if there is a substantial improvement he could travel to Madrid and play. But it is difficult because of the little time left."
Fellow Argentina international Nicolas Otamendi is also enjoying an excellent season at the Etihad Stadium as City close in on the Premier League title.
The defender was already a regular for the national team but his form has been transformed under Guardiola's guidance and it has not gone unnoticed by Sampaoli.
"We are very happy that Otamendi is playing here at City under Guardiola," he said. "We feel he has evolved tremendously. We are proud of him."
Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.