Lionel Messi needs to dig deep to revive moribund Argentina

All alone: Lionel Messi has had nobody to support him, with Argentina's midfield being their weakest link. Picture: AFP/Getty.
All alone: Lionel Messi has had nobody to support him, with Argentina's midfield being their weakest link. Picture: AFP/Getty.
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It looked like a defeated army surrendering to the enemy,
humiliated. Grim faces avoiding eye contact, parading behind their leader to an uncertain fate.

Argentina, led by Lionel Messi, behaved just like that after the chastening 3-0 defeat by Croatia in the World Cup on Thursday.

With just one point from the first two group matches, the two-time winners are in trouble. That distress eased only slightly yesterday when Nigeria beat Iceland 2-0.

But Messi and Co now have to face the impressive African team in their final Group D match on Tuesday in St Petersburg.

There’s still a chance for Argentina to advance, but the South Americans have to win and their destiny is partly in the hands of other teams.

If Argentina are to have a chance they will need Messi to discover his form. He needs to dig deep and end his scoring drought at the tournament. But the team has been acting like elimination is a foregone conclusion.

Coach Jorge Sampaoli spoke as if an era had ended. He made it clear that his blueprint “didn’t succeed”. He tried different tactics and tweaked formations, but nothing worked. The loss to Croatia came after a 1-1 draw with Iceland, a nation of 350,000 people that is playing in its first World Cup.

“There’s nothing to say. The result speaks for itself,” defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano said. “We can only swallow the poison and see what happens [in the other group matches].”

The criticism back home has been ruthless. The main targets are Sampaoli and goalkeeper Willy Caballero, whose error led to Croatia’s first goal. Ossie Ardiles, a World Cup winner in 1978, said the current side was “the worst national team in Argentina history”.

In a scathing attack posted on Twitter, the former Tottenham midfielder reserved his most stinging criticism for the coach.

“Sampaoli: Dreadful,” Ardiles wrote. “Arrogant, ignorant. Even having the best player in the world was not capable of creating a competitive team. Never the same 11 during his tenure.”

Ardiles also blasted the team’s tactics, adding: “Plan A of Sampaoli. Give the ball to Messi and wait for a miracle. If Plan A doesn’t work, Plan B. Errr. There is no plan B. Let alone plan C or D. Defensively: Make fouls. Wherever it is and regardless of the circumstances, or the consequences.”

Sampaoli is Argentina’s third coach since the 2014 World Cup, when they finished runners-up to Germany.

So far Messi has had nobody to support him. Argentina’s midfield is their weakest link and has been generating little creativity. The team lacks identity and doesn’t scare opponents. There also appears to be discord in the dressing room. Forward Sergio Aguero
responded in a defiant tone that Sampaoli “can say what he wants,” when journalists told him about the coach’s post-match remarks.

The booing of Sampaoli and Caballero by Argentina fans after the first goal has only helped to exacerbate the crisis.

“The feeling is of extreme pain to not have been at the level that the Argentine people wanted,” Sampaoli said. “I want to apologise to everyone that came to see us. I feel responsible for this. I have tried to do my best until now and I haven’t found the way to give them what they want.”