A brutal beginning. Lionel Messi’s international career looks likely to end in historic failure as Argentina were pushed to the brink of an exit at the group stages of a World Cup for the first time in 48 years by a blistering second-half Croatian barrage.
The roof fell in on the most gifted player of his generation in Nizhny Novgorod as Argentina self-detonated in mortifying fashion.
By the time Ivan Rakitic apologetically rolled in a third, Argentines had done the maths and knew their fate is out of their hands. An Iceland victory over Nigeria today will only worsen their helpless position.
When you get the kind of assistance served up by goalkeeper Willy Caballero, however, things are always likely to be helpless. A calamitous howler gifted Ante Rebic the pivotal opener and as Argentina fell asunder, the magnificent Luka Modric provided the game’s standout moment, before Rakitic rubbed salt in the wound.
“Messi is an incredible player, but he cannot do everything alone. In football you need help,” said Modric.
Sampaoli shouldered some blame but shared it around.
“Some players didn’t adjust themselves to the organisation. I don’t know about shame but I definitely feel pain. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone through this as a coach.
“We didn’t manage to find a system that could benefit Argentina and Leo greatly. The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Leo’s brilliance. He is limited because the team doesn’t gel with him like it should.”
It should never end like this. But it so often does.
After five days of reportedly closing himself off in his hotel room, Messi had re-emerged in Nizhny Novgorod, his country’s great need calling him back into an uncomfortable place.
For 14 magical seasons, Messi has drawn so much pleasure out of his day job with Barcelona. The duty of carrying his nation has often incarcerated him. A slave to expectation, a slave to history, a slave to a future they have dreamed of but Messi has never been able to realise.
After taking his penalty miss against Iceland particularly hard, he had been withdrawn at Argentina’s base camp, avoiding team functions. He had taken Argentina’s malfunctioning midfield personally too, the Javier Mascherano-Lucas Biglia axis had been his recommendation to Sampaoli but when it spluttered the coach decided he had no more room to experiment and went his own way.
Out went Biglia, Marcus Rojo, and Angel Di Maria with Enzo Perez coming into the middle, Marcos Acuna to his left, and Gabriel Mercado on the right side of a reshaped back three.
The irony in Argentina pitching up to face Croatia in such a state was not lost. A country that has an intimate relationship with dysfunction, Zlatko Dalic’s side instead found themselves filling the role of solid, stoic Europeans.
As Argentina emerged, the past that handcuffs Messi was here, Diego Maradona leading La Albiceleste’s army in song while kissing the captain’s shirt. As the anthems played, Messi’s body language could have kept a team of psychologists busy for 90 minutes.
The early pace was frenetic and Messi could have stolen the priceless opener on 12 minutes when Acuna’s deft chip fooled all. It fooled the captain too and he couldn’t strain to guide it in.
Croatia were the more fluid but for both sides nerves were showing and soon fraying. Referee Ravshan Irmatov would take his time to get things under control but in the meantime both sides should have scored.
Dejan Lovren inevitably sparked an unholy mix-up on the half-hour and Perez was left with a goal that was not quite open but certainly unclosed. He pulled wide. A minute later, Sime Vrsaljko’s wicked delivery from the right found Mario Mandzukic unmarked at the back post. He inexplicably missed the target
Even now the contest was on a knife-edge.
And then: Caballero’s calamity. As the most simple of backpasses reached the goalkeeper on 53 minutes, he inexplicably tried to chip a pass to Gabriel Mercado. Instead he spooned it into the night sky. There Rebic eyed it like a gift from the gods, swivelled, and exquisitely powered home.
Sampaoli hauled Aguero and Eduardo Salvio off, asking Gonzalo Higuain and Cristian Pavon to work a miracle. Or at least to go ask Messi to work one for him.
It almost worked, HIguain’s 63rd-minute cross finding Meza but neither he nor Messi could find a way past Danijel Subasic. Paulo Dybala next joined the fray as Sampaoli cast off any final semblance of composure. It was what Argentina lacked the most, however. Dybala cut in and flashed one wide but this frenzied desperation was never likely to succeed.
Instead Modric arrived with a killer blow 10 minutes from time, a quick shift then a pearler of a curling drive nestling low into the corner.
There was still time for Rakitic to bundle in the third during added time.
As Croats went crazy, Sampaoli and his players stared hard and blank and dead stares. They’re still alive. Just. Messi’s most bittersweet release is fast approaching.
Caballero 2; Mercado 4, Otamendi 4, Tagliafico 5; Salvio 5 (Pavon 56), Mascherano 5, Perez 5 (Dybala 68), Acuna 6; Messi 5, Aguero 4 (Higuain 54), Meza 5.
Subasic 7, Vrsaljko 6, Lovren 6, Vida 7, Strinic 6, Rakitic 7, Brozovic, Rebic 7 (Kramaric 57), Modric 9, Perisic 7 (Kovacic 82), Mandzukic 6 (Corluka 90). Ref : Ravshan Irmatov (Uzbekistan).