Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli denies rift with Lionel Messi ahead of qualifier
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli has denied rumours of a rift with star player Lionel Messi on the eve of their crucial World Cup qualifier against Venezuela.
Barcelona forward Messi is critical to the Albiceleste's hopes during a qualification campaign in which they now have little room for error.
A goalless draw in Uruguay last Thursday has left Argentina fifth in the South American group with just three games remaining to secure a top-four spot -- and automatic qualification -- for Russia 2018.
Over the weekend, reports emerged of a disagreement between Messi and new coach Sampaoli, who was brought in ahead of the Uruguay game to rescue the campaign.
But Sampaoli, at a prematch news conference reported by the Argentinian press, claimed such rumours were not only incorrect but designed to undermine his team.
He said: "You are asking me about rumours. I can't be giving credence to rumours. You have to have some kind of certainty that what you are asking is truth. Otherwise, I am giving credence to rumours.
"Yes, I can say that is false, just like I can say there are a lot of statements that are false. But you are asking me about rumours, perhaps something with intent to do harm.
"Nowadays, we are living in a world in which a lie that is told a thousand times becomes truth. But it is shameful because we are giving value to the rumour that someone wants Argentina to be out of the World Cup and that is shameful.
"We are very lucky to have the best player in the world totally involved to get Argentina to the World Cup. I don't like to hear these types of questions because they are slanted and you can see where they are going."
Sampaoli went on to hail the importance of Messi, who has been sorely missed when unavailable.
Messi has been able to play in just seven of Argentina's 15 games so far and they have accumulated 16 of their 23 points with him in the side.
However, Sampaoli admitted the team suffers from a dependency on their star player -- something he hopes to change.
"It's difficult to remove the Messi dependency from a team when Leo is there," he said.
"When you know you have the best player you will always look toward him."
Regarding the players who pair best with Messi, Sampaoli said: "The great partnerships are obvious: Messi with Di María and Messi with Banega.
"A player like [Ever] Banega, a great enabler, gives Messi the chance to move into the opponent's area. Although I want to begin to be able to start with Paulo Dybala y Mauro Icardi."
Finishing fifth in the group would leave Argentina facing an intercontinental playoff against a country from the Oceania region.
Even that could be in jeopardy with another bad result as Peru, Paraguay and Ecuador all hope to take advantage of any further slip-ups from the two-time World Cup winners.
Conversely, while group leaders Brazil may be out of reach, Colombia, Uruguay and Chile above them could all be overtaken with a strong finish.
With two of the remaining three matches at home, beginning with bottom-placed Venezuela, Argentina should be confident of finishing the job.
"The need to win is going to test our virtue. It will be important for us to believe in what we can do and in our capabilities so that we can carry on with the hope of qualifying for the World Cup," Sampaoli said.