Football: Sampaoli justifies star duo's absence

Paulo Dybala, second from left, at a training session last night. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli spoke very briefly yesterday but refused to underestimate the Lions.
Paulo Dybala, second from left, at a training session last night. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli spoke very briefly yesterday but refused to underestimate the Lions.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Brief explanation of 'wise decision' to exclude Messi, Higuain for tonight's friendly match

The Argentina national football team finally broke their media silence yesterday, after going quiet in their first 48 hours since arriving in Singapore on Saturday.

But when coach Jorge Sampaoli could finally speak, his words were almost as fleeting as Lionel Messi's brief appearance in the Republic on Saturday.

Under the strict watch of the team's media officer, the 57-year-old entertained only four English questions during the 18-minute press conference ahead of tonight's blockbuster friendly against hosts Singapore at the National Stadium.

Still, Sampaoli was asked to account for the absence of top names like Barcelona's five-time Player of the Year Messi and Juventus' star striker Gonzalo Higuaín.

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And he insisted that it was a "wise decision" to excuse them from the friendly, after the duo's exertions in both their domestic leagues as well as the Champions League during the recently-concluded season.

"Basically, they were carrying over a lot of games, so I think it's a wise decision to let them go, for this game," said Sampaoli via a translator. "It would have been too risky to let them play now."

Nevertheless, the issue of the duo's no-show is a huge disappointment for football fans in Singapore, who were expecting to see them in action tonight, as images of both players had been used in the promotional campaign.

Both Messi and Higuain had played in last Friday's 1-0 win over South American rivals Brazil in a friendly match in Melbourne.

Messi touched down in Singapore on Saturday evening with the rest of the squad from Australia but left five hours later for Barcelona, without signing any autographs for fans. Higuain did not follow the squad to Singapore.

Yesterday, Messi posted a photo on Instagram of himself holidaying with his family in Ibiza, together with his Barcelona team-mate Luis Suarez, and Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas.

Match promoter Unicess has stated that there will be no refund of tickets - which cost between $40 and $188 - despite the absence of the two Argentina stars.

Sampaoli, who was appointed as Argentina national coach on June 1, plans to give run-outs to the likes of Juventus forward Paulo Dybala and Paris Saint-Germain's Angel di Maria tonight, in just his second match in charge. Meanwhile, Lazio midfielder Lucas Biglia will be wearing the captain's armband in Messi's absence.

Said Sampaoli: "Due to the big difference between the two teams, this is an opportunity for us to (experiment with) our ideas, where we will hopefully enjoy (using) the great attacking power of the Argentina.

"We have many attackers and it's an opportunity to see how they play with the defenders in the team, and it's important to see how fast they recover after they lose the ball."

Yet he refuses to underestimate the hosts, as he is aware that the Lions will be bringing their top game against a world-class team in front of an estimated 20,000 fans.

Sampaoli said: "I disagree with the statement that we will win for sure. After our preparation game against Brazil, we are playing a difficult game against Singapore.

"I'm expecting to have a team (Singapore) in front that are taking advantage of the opportunity to really play against Argentina."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'Sampaoli justifies star duo's absence'. Print Edition | Subscribe