Lionel Messi's World Cup dream turned into a nightmare in a game that could go down as one of Argentina's most infamous defeatsLionel Messi's World Cup dream turned into a nightmare in a game that could go down as one of Argentina's most infamous defeats
In the end, that image of Lionel Messi furrowing his brow and rubbing his forehead intently during the national anthem may prove to be the defining one of Argentina’s great World Cup collapse. The pressure on the Barcelona number 10 was overwhelming and, in the end, his team were crushed under it - a coach who lost the plot, a team with no direction and a talisman of superstar capabilities reduced to a wandering spectator.
Should those pictures of Messi creaking under insane expectations become embedded on the gravestone of Jorge Sampaoli’s side and their collapse, then few would be more relieved than Willy Caballero, the goalkeeper whose bumbling display against Iceland gave Argentina palpitations and, on this balmy evening in Nizhny Novgorod, killed them stone dead.
In a game that they were struggling to make a mark on, Argentina were at least level with Croatia at that point. They needed just one moment of inspiration and had the players capable of providing it but that mistake was like an earthquake, shaking Argentina to their very core and sparking the Croats into life.
Willy Caballero was to blame for the opening goal (Getty)
These were two teams whose coaches had spent most of the game failing to get a raft of talented players to work cohesively and in a way that maximised their respective talents.
Indeed, both sides played way below the level of the players on show, but Croatia were gifted a goal and Argentina were not. Newly blessed with belief, Croatia found their next gear. Argentina stalled, spluttered and ultimately broke down.
If there is a nightmare vision that Messi will see in the sleepless nights to come, it will be the moment that felt like it sent his dream of a World Cup swirling down the drain, that second where Caballero’s eyes froze wide like a pair of freight tunnels as Ante Rebic waited and paused. He held, then he volleyed. Croatia ahead, Argentina bereft.
IN PICTURES: Argentina thrashed by Croatia
That error from Caballero, a scuffed pass that sat up for Rebic to slam home, will not go down well in Buenos Aires. For those who subscribe to the view that Messi has to win a World Cup to truly be Diego Maradona’s heir we are instead talking about the goalkeeper with no hair. It was not supposed to be like this. Genius scuppered by idiocy.
The game’s one moment of genuine quality was the nail in Argentina’s coffin, a Luka Modric effort that Caballero had an excuse for not getting close to and which put Croatia themselves out of reach. The game slowed after that, both sides aware of their respective fates.
Jorge Sampaoli teams have always been characterised by intensity, high pressing and swarming attacks but this Argentina side have proven to be utterly ponderous, caught between their urge to try and steal the ball high up the field and the fear of their creaking defence being exposed. That feeling of being caught in two minds fairly surmises Sampaoli's own philosophical struggles.
This, surely, is where it all ends for Messi and Argentina (EPA)
Should an international coach not look at the playing resources he has and try to craft his team around them? If that is the philosophy then Dybala, Higuain and Ever Banega should all have seen starts in this tournament.
Since taking over the national team Sampaoli has been neither the dogmatic coach wed to his system nor the pragmatist trying to maximise a talented squad. The result was indecipherable mush, but it had never been as bad as this disastrous display which posed questions about almost everyone involved.
Croatia deserve credit for the way they turned up the heat at the right times and contained one of the finest players to ever pull on football boots but their task was made easier by a directionless team. Some of Sampaoli’s most-successful sides have played like swarming wasps but this was more like slumbering warthogs. Utterly inexplicable.
The World Cup is everything to Argentineans, it is why they have brought tens of thousands of travelling fans to Russia and why they have become the vibrant soundtrack to every city that they have occupied but that appeared to weigh on the coach, whose decision-making has melted like a candle held to the sun, and the team, whose capitulation in the dying stages of this fraught encounter made even an unlikely qualification next week nigh-on impossible.
Realistically Argentina now must rely on Nigeria to hold or beat Iceland and then they must win next week and hope. Goal difference in tatters after insanity took over the final minutes of this defeat, Argentina must try and find some clear thinking to go again but it feels impossible that this shakily-assembled bunch of Messis y Pavónes - to borrow the lexicon of Real Madrid’s galactico era - could ever accomplish anything.
Once again Argentinean football feels like it is ready to clear the decks. There is 90 minutes to change that, one game against Nigeria to prevent Caballero’s misstep becoming part of Argentinean football infamy.