Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli called his team “true rebels” and lauded their mental strength after defeating Nigeria 2-1 at the World Cup.
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli called his team “true rebels” and lauded their mental strength after defeating Nigeria 2-1 to secure passage to the knockout stages of the 2018 World Cup.
Argentina appeared to be on their way to victory when Lionel Messi put the Albiceleste up 1-0 in the 14th minute, but Nigeria’s Victor Moses equalised from the spot early in the second half.
With Argentina needing to win to advance out of the group stage, it pushed forward. This left them exposed on the counterattack and Nigeria had several opportunities to go ahead, but couldn’t convert. It also survived a shout for a penalty when Marcos Rojo headed the ball off his arm. With time winding down, it was left to Rojo to deliver the game-winner, with his first-time finish from Gabriel Mercado’s cross beating Francis Uzoho in the Nigeria goal.
“We had a plan for today’s match and I think that the first half went very well,” said Sampaoli with the help of an interpreter. “We were better than Nigeria, and we had ball possession and control over the situation. We also were able to move forward, and had many, many touches from midfield.
“Then after the penalty we got a little nervous and we worried about not being able to go through. We were very happy at end…the players played with their hearts, they are true rebels. They had a very difficult thing to do, and they have achieved a victory which is very important for the future. I think that this will be a good opportunity for the future as well.”
Following the victory, Messi came over and hugged Sampaoli. The two withstood heavy criticism after the first two matches saw Argentina claim a solitary point, making Tuesday’s moment all the sweeter.
“When Leo came and hugged me I felt very proud and happy because he knows I’m passionate and passionate every single day,” said Sampaoli. “I have had the possibility to travel with him and share many moments with him before the World Cup. He knows me, he knows me well, he knows that we have this common dream, coming to Russia and doing something important for Argentina.”
The match marked Messi’s best performance of the tournament. He looked more aggressive than he had in the previous two matches and in addition to his goal, he hit the post with a free kick later in the half. Sampaoli credited a three-man central midfield of Enzo Perez, Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega with being able to get Messi the ball in good spots.
“A coach who has to train Leo knows that everybody surrounding him needs to make him feel secure, sure, and if we’re able to create passes to Leo we can create opportunities,” he said. “Because otherwise we suffer. We have the best player in the world, and the rest of the players need to benefit from that. That’s why I said that the match against Croatia was our problem and not [Messi’s] problem.”
“[Messi’s] human side is amazing,” said Sampaoli. “He’s a person who feels, who cries, who suffers, who is happy when Argentina wins. To me, this is important, to share those feelings with the rest of the world. I know him. I’ve seen him happy, and sad, in crisis times and positive times like today.
“People say that Leo doesn’t enjoy playing for Argentina, but I don’t agree. He enjoys and suffers like all the other players and that makes him even bigger.”