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Messi turns 31 as struggling Argentina
prepare for next World Cup match

BUENOS AIRES Argentina (Xinhua) -- Argentina forward Lionel Messi turned 31 on Sunday as his embattled national team prepared for its next match at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

“Happy Birthday captain Leo Messi,” the team posted to its Twitter account, along with three photos of the talisman blowing out candles on three birthday cakes.

It seemed like a low-key affair well-suited to the guarded mood of the team, whose match against Nigeria on Tuesday will be decisive.

To advance to the knockout stage, Argentina have to beat the African team and hope Iceland don’t defeat Croatia in the other remaining Group D game.

There have been rumors of strained relations between the players and the coaching staff, despite assertions to the contrary by midfielder Javier Mascherano, who plays his club football for Chinese Super League outfit Hebei China Fortune.

At a press conference on Sunday, Mascherano said the relationship with head coach Jorge Sampaoli “is completely normal.”

Sampaoli has come under fire since his side lost their second group game of the tournament to Croatia 3-0, following a lackluster first game against Iceland in which they drew 1-1.

According to Argentinian media, the coach and players have been at odds over Sampaoli’s constant changes in strategy and personnel.

The Albiceleste, who finished runners-up in the 2014 World Cup, are facing the possibility of being eliminated in the group stage, as they were at the 2002 tournament under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa.

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UPDATES:

Nigeria’s Mikel to play against Argentina despite fracture

YESSENTUKI Russia (Xinhua) -- Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel is likely to play in his team’s decisive World Cup Group D match against Argentina on Tuesday despite nursing a broken bone in his left hand.

The 31-year-old Tianjin TEDA midfielder suffered the injury during stoppage time in the African team’s 2-0 win over Iceland on Friday.

“Unfortunately our captain has a fracture but I think he will be able to play with a splint,” Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said in a video published by the Nigerian football federation on Sunday. “Our medical team is looking after it.”

Nigeria will progress to the round of 16 if they win Tuesday’s match in Saint Petersburg. A draw will also see them advance if Croatia beat Iceland.

For their part, Argentina must win and hope that Iceland do not defeat Croatia by a margin that leaves the Nordic team with a superior goal difference.

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Mascherano: No rift between Argentina players and coach Sampaoli

By sportswriter Michael Place BRONNITSY Russia (Xinhua) -- Midfielder Javier Mascherano has denied reports of a rift between Argentina’s players and coach Jorge Sampaoli as the two-time world champions struggle to avoid early elimination from the World Cup in Russia.

The Albiceleste drew 1-1 with Iceland in their first game before crumbling to a 3-0 loss to Croatia on Thursday. To advance to the round of 16, the South American side must win their final group match against Nigeria in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday and hope that Iceland do not beat Croatia by a margin that leaves the Nordic team with a superior goal difference.

“The relationship with the coach is totally normal,” Mascherano told a press conference at the team’s training base on Sunday. “When we see a problem, we raise it, we are not hypocrites.”

According to media reports in Argentina, senior Albiceleste players have expressed concerns to Argentine Football Association officials about Sampaoli’s team selection and tactics.

After the match against Croatia, forward Sergio Aguero told reporters that “he [Sampaoli] can say what he wants” after being told of the coach’s criticism of the players.

“The best coaches in the world also ask the players for their opinion, because the player is the one who ends up making the decisions,” Mascherano said. “The coach gives you the tools, but you decide which is the best option [on the pitch], and for that to occur you have to be comfortable.”

Mascherano insisted that five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, who struggled to make an impact against Croatia and missed a penalty against Iceland, was “fine”.

And he said the team benefited from a clear-the-air meeting between players and coaching staff following the loss to Croatia.

“We are the current vice champions [runners up at the last World Cup] and at some point we have to show that. I think we’ll do that by putting things right, playing as a team and saying what we think. We can hide our feelings. We need certainty that the eleven that go out onto the pitch have a clear idea.”

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Croatia defender Lovren: We could rest players against Iceland

By Paul Giblin MOSCOW Russia (Xinhua) -- Croatia defender Dejan Lovren had potentially bad news for Argentina when he spoke to the press on Sunday.

Despite two performances which have provoked widespread criticism, Argentina still have a lifeline in the 2018 World Cup finals and will qualify for the last 16 if Leo Messi and company can win their final Group D match against Nigeria and Croatia, who are already assured a place in the last 16, avoid defeat to Iceland in the other Group D match.

Speaking at the Croatia training camp outside of St Petersburg, Lovren made it clear that Croatia won’t be thinking about Argentina when they face Iceland and if they have to rest key players that is what going to happen.

“I can really understand Argentina’s worries and why they want us to play the strongest team for the next game,” said the central defender.

“But we must also have think about the fact that we should not be playing the players who have yellow cards. That’s also our concern we need to keep in mind,” he commented.

There will be an amnesty for yellow cards after the quarter-finals in Russia, but not before and with key players such as strikers Mario Mandzukic and Ante Rebic both booked in the first two matches, along with right back Sime Vrsaljko and influential midfielder, Ivan Rakitic, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is unlikely to risk them picking up a further card which could see them miss out in the knockout rounds, while others such as 32-year-old Luka Modric, who scored such an impressive goal against Argentina, could also be rested.

“The head coach is the one who will make the final decision. All of our players are ready,” said Lovren.

           

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