(Reuters/NAN) FC Barcelona forward Lionel Messi has the talent and maturity to carry Argentina’s hopes of a successful 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign this year, the national team’s manager Jorge Sampaoli says.
Two-time winners Argentina open their World Cup campaign with a Group D encounter against Iceland on June 16, and will also face Croatia and Nigeria in the pool stage.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi has led Spanish clubside FC Barcelona to 30 domestic and European trophies during a stellar career.
But he is yet to win a major trophy with the national team, apart from a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
Argentina finished runners-up to Germany at the 2014 World Cup and to Chile at the 2015 and 2016 Copa America tournaments.
Sampaoli believes that Messi can help the team go one step further and end their trophy drought in Russia.
“This is going to be his team,” Sampaoli told a news conference.
“He is the best of all and is in a stage of maturity that he can carry the team on his shoulders. This is going to be his team.”
Messi initially announced his retirement from international football after the loss to Chile in 2016, but the 30-year-old has since reversed his decision.
He is the all-time top goal-scorer for both club and country.
Meanwhile, Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero has been ruled out of Argentina’s friendly against Italy at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester on Friday due to a knee injury.
However, he could return for next week’s trip to Spain.
“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,” the former Chile manager added.
Sampaoli believes the friendlies against Italy, who failed to qualify for the World Cup finals, and Spain present an opportunity for Argentina to send out a warning to their opponents.
“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 much respected,” he said.