To kick off the World Cup with a 1-1 tie against Iceland in which Lionel Messi
failed to convert a penalty kick triggered a typically Argentine reaction.
Accusations and recriminations. In other words, the usual.
The result dropped Argentina into a tie with Iceland for second place in Group D, which is headed by Croatia after its 2-0
defeat of Nigeria. Argentina plays Croatia Thursday.
No less an authority than all-time great Diego Maradona
, who has occasionally criticized Messi in the past, has backed the star
and his teammates and instead called out head coach Jorge Sampaoli
. During an interview aired on Venezuelan television
, Maradona said, “If
he carries on like this, Sampaoli can't come back to Argentina. His game plan was a disgrace. Even though the Iceland players average 1.90 [meters] in height, we played all our corners into the air.
We had no short game.
“I don't blame the players. I blame a lack of preparation because there obviously hasn't been any.”
Sampaoli may not have helped his cause
by agreeing, somewhat, with Maradona’s critiques. Hired slightly more than a year ago, Sampaoli barely got Argentina through the Conmbeol qualifiers with enough points to reach Russia and in
explaining his decisions to make several lineup changes for the Croatia game admitted the team’s persona is still evolving.
“I haven’t been at the helm very long and
these players all play in different clubs so it’s hard to establish a clear footballing identity so to speak,” said Sampaoli
, who will coach the national team for the 13th
time against Croatia. He has never fielded the same 11 starters in consecutive games.
“We haven’t had that much time to develop specific characteristics in our organization.
What we try to do is adapt to the situation and slowly but surely we try to develop approaches that generate a style of play. We don’t want the structure of the team to hamper individual talent
because matches are going to be won by the players.”
As to which players he will select, there could be as many as five changes to the starters for Iceland. Argentina trained this
week with a line of three defenders – Gabriel Mercato
, Nicolas Otamendi
and Nicolas Tagliaico
– rather than the four-man defense utilized in the opener. Mercato would
replace Marcus Rojo
in the new alignment that would also feature wingbacks to support the three central defenders when necessary. Right back Eduardo Salvio
got in some work during the
week at right wingback.
Sampaoli could also replace Angel Di Maria
with Cristian Pavon,
a rising star at age 22 who played an impressive 20 minutes as a sub against
“I think that Jorge is looking at every position. We'll see what happens and what he decides on the day,” Pavon said. “I feel confident and luckily things are
going well for me, but I don't know yet if I'll be a starter.”
Optimism abounds in the Croatians, who are riding atop the group on the momentum of a 2-0 defeat of Nigeria in their
opener. Since reaching the 1998 World Cup semifinals in its first appearance after breaking off from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia has not survived past the group phase. This time, the group is in
their control and they don’t seem flustered about which team they play next.
Head coach Zlatko Dalic
said, “The match against Argentina is the easiest game for us at
the World Cup because we have three points and we play against a big opponent. We have nothing to lose in the game. I’ll tell my players before the game just to enjoy the spectacle.
“I infinitely and endlessly believe in my team. We will have to play well if we want to win, as always some luck will be needed as well. We have to show our quality and this is a real test for
As for the generation of Messi, it is burdened by expectations created by so many near-misses recently. Eight players on the squad return from the members of the
2014 team that fell in the World Cup final to Germany and also lost to Chile on penalties in the finals of the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario.
The superstar who led
Argentina to its second World Cup title in 1986 hasn’t wavered in supporting his modern counterpart, whose brilliant legacy will be clouded if he can’t reach the pinnacle himself. “I
missed five penalties in a row and I was still Diego Armando Maradona,” he said. “The game and the two points lost by the team are not down to his penalty.
showed his face and gave everything he had to give. The kid did his duty. Seeing him on the field, he was pretty pissed off. Just like I would have been. It was all him, he always had to shrug two
players off and when he did, there was no pass open.”
A tie with Croatia would leave Argentina behind at least two of its group foes heading into a final game with Nigeria. Losing
to Croatia would be catastrophic. Victory would not clinch anything but certainly restore confidence and build momentum, which has not existed since Sampaoli took over in June of last year.
“We are closer to losing the coming games,” said Maradona. “We are in big trouble, but we still believe in God and that we can improve. I hope the lads get better.”