MANCHESTER - Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli accepted on Thursday the two-time world champions' chances at the World Cup in Russia will depend far more on Lionel Messi than his own influence.
Sampaoli was drafted in for Argentina's final four matches of a faltering qualifying campaign, but it was Messi's brilliant hat-trick in a 3-1 win at Ecuador in their final qualifier that ensured they didn't miss out on the World Cup.
"This is going to be his team," said Sampaoli, ahead of Friday's friendly against Italy at Manchester City's Etihad stadium.
"He is the best and is in a stage of maturity that he can carry the team on his shoulders. It is more his team than mine."
For all his success at club level with Barcelona, Messi has never won a major international tournament with Argentina.
The five-time Ballon d'Or winner will again carry the bulk of his nation's expectations. But at 30, this could be Messi's final opportunity to crown his glorious career with a World Cup.
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero will not be fit to face Italy due to a hamstring injury and Sampaoli said he is also unlikely to play against Spain in Madrid on Tuesday.
"We have talked to City about Aguero. If there is a substantial improvement he could travel but I see it as difficult because of the short time left," said Sampaoli.
Despite Aguero's injury, Juventus forward Paulo Dybala didn't even make it into Sampaoli's squad with the former Sevilla coach enjoying an enviable array of prolific strikers to choose from.
Often compared to Messi for his diminutive physique and wicked left foot, Dybala has scored 21 goals in all competitions this season but has admitted he finds it difficult to play alongside Messi.
"It's complicated for Dybala to get used to our style," said Sampaoli, hinting that Dybala will miss out on the World Cup.
"We couldn't improve his performances and we have to evaluate if the current players are better than Paulo or if we have to keep working with Paulo to improve his performances."