Lionel Messi trains at La Trobe University Bundoora campus in Melbourne.
Lionel Messi trains at La Trobe University Bundoora campus in Melbourne. JULIAN SMITH

Argentina in lockdown before Brazil MCG encounter

LIONEL Messi will start in Friday's Superclasico against Brazil at the MCG, as tension rises in the Argentina camp.

New Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli ordered a FIFA World Cup-style lockdown on Wednesday as he conducted his first session with the entire 26-man squad.

Star Juventus duo Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, who played in Sunday's UEFA Champions League final loss to Real Madrid, trained along with six Argentina-based players who were last to join the squad.

The closed session at Melbourne City's Bundoora base followed on from Monday and Tuesday's sessions which were open to media only for 15 minutes, akin to a major tournaments.

It contrasts to the approach of relaxed but no less serious Brazil, whose intensive training has been open to the media at Lakeside Stadium while the world's No.1 team have also provided two players to the media at the end of each session.

Argentina's covert operation underlines the pressure the squad, particularly Messi and Sampaoli, are under, with the two-time World Cup winners having failed to qualify just once, back in 1970.

All this with a backdrop of a media boycott, stemming from a radio report last November alleging that Ezequiel Lavezzi - who was not selected for this tour - was smoking marijuana after training.

Messi has led the boycott, fronting a press conference flanked by the entire squad announcing the protest.

"We have decided not to speak any more with the press," Messi said after they beat Colombia.

"We're very sorry it has to be like this but we have no option. Getting into one's personal life is very grave and that's why we're here (announcing this)."

Messi in Melbourne: Soccer superstar meets fans
Messi in Melbourne: Soccer superstar meets fans

The bizarre situation adds intrigue and tension, with their last camp ending with the sacking of Edgardo Bauza after a 2-0 loss to Bolivia, which left Argentina in fifth - which is a playoff spot - and 11 points behind leaders Brazil.

While the focus is Argentina's precariously-placed World Cup spot, Sampaoli will be under immense pressure if his full-strength team loses to Neymar-less Brazil in his unveiling.

Having never coached in Argentina's top flight (he's only managed Peruvian and Chilean club sides), Sampaoli is less popular with the fanatical fans than he is with the local media despite his impressive record.

The Argentine native coached Chile at the last World Cup and led Chile to their first Copa America final win, in 2015, beating Argentina in the final.

Sampaoli, who is noted for a high-tempo, possession-based, attacking style, is eager to see Messi operate in his game plan as he prepares for one of the most eagerly-awaited coaching debuts in international football.