The mute prince of world football seemed to know something was wrong from kick-off, a hand to his brow, some whispered words for none but himself, and that was even before Lionel Messi opened his eyes and looked around at the worst Argentina team in memory.

You could say he tried to save them, but really Messi was more like a grief-stricken relative at the bedside, occasionally rubbing a hand while coming to terms with the reality of the situation. It felt like a long time since someone was handing him a goat and asking him to look at the camera over there, indeed there were times when a goat in a blue and white shirt might have been a better option than whatever Jorge Sampaoli was trying to do.
Up in the hospitality seats Diego Maradona had a minder who would ease him gently back when he looked like toppling over the screen in front of him, both expending more nervous energy on this Argentina performance than the man who inherited the No 10 shirt. They are not out yet but a win for Iceland against Nigeria on Friday would put Argentina on the brink, and their destiny in this World Cup finals has already slipped from their control.

Messi had his first shot in the 64th minute, perfectly isolated by what Luka Modric would later describe as the perfect game-plan, and yet it felt like the Argentina captain came onto the pitch with a premonition of what was to come. The old inscrutability had slipped, and instead he seemed to be worrying, and with good reason. Sampaoli’s three-man defence was a disaster, compounded by goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s error for the first goal.

The Argentina coach was a mix of despair and anger on the touchline, responding to Ante Rebic’s first goal by replacing Sergio Aguero before the hour with Gonzalo Higuain, the Manchester City striker returning to the bench in disbelief. The grief at the end from an Argentina support that dominated the Nizhny stadium was real, not the kind confected for the television cameras, at a team so hopelessly configured.

If Argentina kept their masterpiece in the attic, under a dust sheet, then Croatia made the most of their stars, with the second and third goals coming from Modric and Ivan Rakitic. They controlled an Argentinian midfield that was hopelessly out of its depth and Marcelo Brozovic screened off Messi from the game until the little maestro realised that he might as well be stood on the stadium concourse for all the decent service he was getting.

Later Sampaoli would intimate that it was unfair to compare Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo when this current Argentina team was so poor. Yet it was him who called in three new players, two of them over 30 – Gabriel Mercado and Enzo Perez – both of whom looked below the required standard. Paulo Dybala was only his third substitution. Ever Banega and Angel Di Maria did not play a minute and the tone of the questioning from the Argentine media left no doubt where they saw the blame lying.

This was a triumph for the Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic whose team are through to the second round now and vindicated in his decision to send home AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic for defying him during the win over Nigeria. Dalic said he intended to rest his whole team for the third game, which may yet not be the case but even so it will not do Argentina’s chances any favours.

 

The Argentina coach was a mix of despair and anger on the touchline, responding to Ante Rebic’s first goal by replacing Sergio Aguero before the hour with Gonzalo Higuain, the Manchester City striker returning to the bench in disbelief. The grief at the end from an Argentina support that dominated the Nizhny stadium was real, not the kind confected for the television cameras, at a team so hopelessly configured.

If Argentina kept their masterpiece in the attic, under a dust sheet, then Croatia made the most of their stars, with the second and third goals coming from Modric and Ivan Rakitic. They controlled an Argentinian midfield that was hopelessly out of its depth and Marcelo Brozovic screened off Messi from the game until the little maestro realised that he might as well be stood on the stadium concourse for all the decent service he was getting.

Later Sampaoli would intimate that it was unfair to compare Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo when this current Argentina team was so poor. Yet it was him who called in three new players, two of them over 30 – Gabriel Mercado and Enzo Perez – both of whom looked below the required standard. Paulo Dybala was only his third substitution. Ever Banega and Angel Di Maria did not play a minute and the tone of the questioning from the Argentine media left no doubt where they saw the blame lying.

This was a triumph for the Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic whose team are through to the second round now and vindicated in his decision to send home AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic for defying him during the win over Nigeria. Dalic said he intended to rest his whole team for the third game, which may yet not be the case but even so it will not do Argentina’s chances any favours.

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