Lionel Messi’s missed penalty hangs over Argentina
Sampaoli hopes to exploit magnetism of his superstar in crunch clash with Croatia
Argentina’s Lionel Messi taking part in a training session at the team’s camp near Moscow. Photograph: Getty Images
“Sometimes football gives unpleasant surprises,”sighed Argentine football manager Jorge Sampaoli on Wednesday afternoon as a sudden chill breeze blew in from the Volga, not long after Argentina’s arrival in Nizhny. Just like that the South Americans’ tournament has reached its first crucial crossing point.
Thursday’s encounter with Croatia is a slippery game, with Lionel Messi’s missed penalty against Iceland hanging over the squad like a bad omen. On the eve of this match both teams appeared for their scheduled training sessions in the stadium, and inevitably the discussions revolved around the influence of Argentina’s number 10.
“For me Leo Messi is the best player of all time,” said his Barcelona team mate Ivan Rakitic, who will win his 94th cap for Croatia.
Sampaoli, meanwhile, persevered in what is an impossible depiction of Messi as both inimitable talent and inextricable squad member.
“Well, it is what I always say. When you score with an Argentina jersey we all take credit. But when Argentina loses it is always Leo’s fault. I feel that is quite unfair treatment. It is a lot of pressure to bear. So I have to say I also am at fault for missing the penalty. He is the best in the world. But clearly it is impossible that a single player can change a match completely.”
It’s a reasonable plea for clemency but, as if to refute the proposition Cristiano Ronaldo took just four minutes to secure the lead for Portugal against Morocco, smashing a powerfully headed goal for his fourth goal of the competition. And in the middle game of Wednesday’s treble header, Uruguay’s talisman Luis Suarez scored the only goal in that game.
Anyone watching Messi against Iceland saw him seeking the game with a keenness that bordered on desperation after his underwhelming penalty was saved by Hannes Halldorsson.
“In the first half Leo had about eight shots on goal and the penalty: he could have scored two or three times,” recalled Rakitic.“It didn’t play out that way. But it will be very difficult to play against him.”
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic has adapted Iceland’s public policy about facing Argentina, stressing the honour and clarifying why he saw it as Croatia’s easiest game.
“I didn’t say Argentina was the easiest opponent: I said it is the easiest game. We have nothing to lose. I will tell the players to enjoy every minute because they are playing against Messi and Argentina.”
He didn’t bother specifying that he will also tell his players to suffocate the space around Messi every time he gets the ball.
Magnetism of Messi
From their secluded base outside Moscow, Sampaoli and the Argentine squad have spent the last five days working on how Argentina can exploit the magnetism of Messi, who will draw two and three players as soon as he takes possession.
Against Iceland, the introduction of Cristian Pavon gave an edge and directness along the left wing but the closing quarter was reduced to Messi’s frantic attempts to conjure an improbable winner. That 1-1 draw leaves them in a tight position now.
“We realise that our window of opportunity is getting smaller by the hour,” agrees Sampaoli. “We definitely want to find spaces when Messi finds himself surrounded, so if two or three players latch on to Messi then others will be free. So we want players to take advantages of these spaces.”
Croatia’s 2-0 win over Nigeria and Dalic’s no-nonsense decision to send striker Nikola Kalinic home for refusing to come in as a substitute in that game leaves them perfectly placed as united outsiders here.
Again all eyes are on Argentina. If this is to be Messi’s final World Cup, the comparisons with his chunky, dazzling predecessor will become more acute if this match ends in disappointment.
“I think people like to compare things,” Sampaoli said. “With Argentina Leo has only lost five or six of the 75 he has played. He is a pillar just as Diego was. Every Argentinian is free to have an opinion.”