Messi goes missing as Argentina loses to Croatia, falls into deep World Cup hole

Just two games into the 2018 World Cup, Lionel Messi and Argentina are facing elimination.

The Albiceleste failed to win for the second consecutive match in Russia, falling 3-0 to Croatia Thursday in Nizhny Novgorod on a self-inflicted wound by backup goalkeeper Willy Caballero, a brilliant long-range goal by Luca Modric and a tap-in by Ivan Rakitic in stoppage time.

Croatia advanced to the knockout stage with the victory. But Argentina’s loss means it must win its final Group D game versus Nigeria, plus get some help with other results, to avoid an embarrassing first-round exit.

Messi was MIA

Maybe that’s harsh; the world’s best player was everywhere in the opener against Iceland but was closely marked and couldn’t finish, even from the penalty spot.

But those expecting a bounce-back game from the Albiceleste captain would be disappointed. Messi was less effective in Argentina’s second match than in its first. The harder the 30-year-old tried, the less things seemed to go his way. Much of that had to do with his supporting cast, of course, as his teammates continue to seem unable or unwilling to give him the ball quickly enough, and in spaces he can exploit with one of his trademark darting runs. But a lot of it was down to the Croatians, whose defensive strategy clearly centered on stopping Messi.

Lionel Messi yells to a teammate during Argentina’s 3-0 loss to Croatia on Thursday. (Getty)
Lionel Messi yells to a teammate during Argentina’s 3-0 loss to Croatia on Thursday. (Getty)

Through two games, Messi has been visibly frustrated. It’s almost as if wants World Cup success too much. Messi looks like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, instead of a man carrying the hopes and dreams of just a single country.

At some point you have to wonder if winning the World Cup, at least this one, just isn’t in the cards for this Albiceleste No. 10. That would be a shame. Championships get claimed by damn good teams that also get a little lucky. Despite Messi’s presence, his squad appears to be neither.

This Argentina team might be terrible

Argentina came out in a noticeably more aggressive posture than in last week’s 1-1 stalemate with Iceland. The intensity was there even if the goals weren’t. But the Croatians, knowing that three points would put them through, were more than happy to also get stuck into tackles themselves; the first half alone saw 18 fouls between the teams, 12 of those by the Croats.

There were some good chances, too. Argentina’s Enzo Perez had a great look at the half-hour mark but somehow fired wide of an open goal following a botched clearance. At the other end, Mario Mandzukic squandered a golden opportunity of his own moments later, sending his header just off-target. Earlier, his strike partner Ivan Perisic forced a good save from Willy Caballero.

But Caballero, who made a mistake on Iceland’s equalizer in the opener, committed an even more egregious error in the 53rd minute on Thursday, mis-hitting a pass that Ante Rebic volleyed home for the eventual winner. Modric’s strike with 10 minutes to go erased any doubt and Messi’s Barcelona teammate Rakitic added another in stoppage time, but the match was basically over right then.

Sampaoli’s tinkering backfires

Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli made three changes to his lineup, bringing in defender Gabriel Mercado for Marcos Rojo and midfielders Marcos Acuna and Perez for Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia. The change-happy boss also switched to a three-man backline. The moves were mostly ineffective, however; while the South Americans fought tooth and nail for every ball, they created just 10 attempts at goal (to Croatia’s 15) and six shots (11), three of them (5) on-frame. Part of the reason was the lack of width. The insertion of Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain in the second half boosted the sputtering attack a bit, but not nearly enough to suggest that having them on earlier would’ve made any difference.

Beware Croatia

The Croatians came into the competition boasting one of its best midfields on paper. The question was if they would play to their talent level, like the iconic 1998 side that reached a semifinal, or bow out of a major tourney early yet again.

This side seems far different from its predecessors. It has no obvious weaknesses. Zlatko Dalic’s team is one that no country will want to face when the knockout stage begins.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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