Lionel Messi: We have to be realistic, today we are not the best

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The main attraction at Argentina’s open training session in Buenos Aires on Sunday was clear but while Lionel Messi shares the nation’s overwhelming desire for success, the Barcelona star has admitted La Albiceleste are not favourites in Russia.

Another league and Copa del Rey double this season at Barcelona has not dampened the Messi’s yearning for international glory.

“I’d swap a Barcelona title for one with the national team,” Messi said during an interview on Argentinean television programme Pasión Por El Fútbol.

“Winning a title with Argentina would be something unique.”

The pain of a World Cup final defeat made only worse by consecutive Copa América final losses has intensified this hunger within the group but after a fraught qualifying campaign and a late change of manager, ending that run in Russia will be difficult.

“I have great faith in this group, we are working very well, we have players with a lot of capacity and experience but we do not have to throw the message of ‘we are going to be the world champion because we are the best’, because the reality is that it is not like that.”

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The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has won everything there is to win at club level but senior honours for Argentina still eludes Messi.

“This is a very big challenge for me personally and the rest of the group, and for the country in general, who dreams of this just as we do.

“It’s a nice responsibility to represent the whole country at the World Cup.”

Argentina may not be favourites and hopes do look to hinge on Messi and so sensibly the captain is taking it a game at a time.

“You have to go match by match and making a winning start is very important. Brazil, Spain and Germany are the leading candidates,” Messi explained before assessing Argentina’s Group D opponents.

“Iceland showed in the last European Championship that they can compete with anyone. They press well and do not leave any spaces and they qualified in first place from their group so we have to be patient because that is fundamental to making a winning start.

“Croatia plays a very well with a style similar to Spain. If you let them play they keep the ball the whole game because they have a very good midfield.”

And on Nigeria, “We always meet them and it’s always tough. They are a very fast side.”

Aside from Argentina still adapting to Jorge Sampaoli, the squad lost experienced goalkeeper Sergio Romero to injury during the first week of training at Ezeiza. One of the key members of the team in 2014, Messi is understandably close with the Manchester United keeper.

“I had the chance to talk to Chiquito [Romero] and he told me that it was something stupid and that he could be back in two or three weeks.

But it wasn’t an easy decision for the coach either, I wouldn’t have liked to be in Sampaoli’s place. It’s difficult to take that decision because of what Chiquito means to the national team.”

Nahuel Guzmán was swiftly brought in as Romero’s replacement and Sampaoli has begun work with his final 23-man squad.

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Among the familiar faces, two stars of the Argentinean top flight are included and Messi has been impressed by both.

“Maxi Meza surprised me. In the game against Spain he took charge, got on the ball and disrupted the defence. He was the best players during the first half.

“[Cristian] Pavón has tremendous pace and the ability to cut inside intelligently. It’s good to have an alternative player like him, who can beat defenders one-on-one.”

Messi turns 31 during the World Cup and if his performances this season for Barcelona are anything to go by, there is still plenty left in the tank.

After one brief international retirement following the second Copa América defeat, Messi  has already said he will continue for as long as needed but could the world’s best player ever leave Barcelona?

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“I am more and more clear that, in Europe, Barcelona is going to be my only home.

“I always said that I wanted to play someday in Argentina. I don’t know if it will happen, but I have it in mind.

“It would be Newell’s, nothing more. I’d like to do that for at least six months, but you never know what is going to happen.

“My dream was to play in the Coloso when I was a kid, when I went to the stadium with my old man, my brothers and my friends. Other circumstances took me away but it always left me thinking.”

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