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Lionel Messi and Argentina on the brink of elimination from 2018 World Cup

Argentina needs a win against Nigeria on the final group stage match day to sneak into the knockout rounds. This is Argentina’s meltdown point.

Argentina v Croatia: Group D - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Every nation, it seems, has its World Cup related meltdown stage.

The United States experienced theirs in October when they missed the World Cup at the hands of Trinidad and Tobego. Italy had theirs after falling to Sweden in the World Cup Playoff. The Netherlands are still going through theirs after missing an expanded Euro 2016 and the World Cup.

Now, we are in the midst of Argentina’s.

Argentina started their World Cup with a surprising draw to Iceland, featuring a Lionel Messi penalty being saved by Hannes Halldorsson, who works as a filmmaker in Iceland. On Thursday, Argentina’s shocking World Cup continued, with a 3-0 demolition at the hands of Luka Modric and Croatia, aided by a Willy Caballero howler to start it all off, and ending with a goal that Messi watched go in.

Argentina now sit at the *bottom* of Group D with one point and -3 goal differential. Croatia have qualified for the knockout rounds as the winner of the Group, and Nigeria have themselves in second with a win over Iceland, getting them three points. Argentina now need a win against Nigeria to get to the Round of 16. Anything less will see them eliminated in the group stage for the first time since 2002.

This, for a team as historic and talented as Argentina, is shocking. A team that finished as runners-up to Germany in 2014 and had massive expectations once again seems ready to come up very, very short.

There are a variety of factors that one can look at when trying to figure out how Argentina got to this point. Starting from the top, the Argentine FA has to shoulder some blame for not getting the team ready to compete in the World Cup. They had three warm-up matches scheduled before the tournament: Nicaragua, Haiti, and Israel. Two of those were cancelled, with only the Haiti match being played. Argentina had one single tune-up match before the World Cup, and it was Haiti. Teams don’t get a lot of preparation before the World Cup, and Argentina gave themselves pretty much no chance to get ready.

Next, let’s look at Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli. Clearly, there are problems with the team that gets put out there. Paulo Dybala waited until the second half of the second game to appear in the World Cup. Mauro Icardi didn’t get a call to the roster because he continues to be frozen out of the team. It seems like Messi picks the team more so than Sampaoli does, and then Sampaoli does not know what to do with the team. After the match against Croatia, Argentina’s manager actually said: “I did not read the match as I should have.” Whatever plan Sampaoli had did not work, and there was no adjustment that any of us could see against Croatia. Argentina got dominated, and that at least partially comes back to the manager.

Finally, you have to look at the players. The players have let the country that they represent down. They got bodied by Croatia and were wasteful for the whole game. They showed no heart and seemed to quit at the end of the match. Messi, one of the top two players in the world, had 49 touches in the match, with zero shots. Yes, Messi should shoulder a good amount of blame for disappearing. But this team is clearly short of being able to get it done, or even to be at this tournament, without the likes of Messi. There is too much talent on Argentina’s team to be in this position, yet here we are. The midfield and the defense have been highlighted as weak points, and got exploited by Croatia, and even Iceland. The attack, Argentina’s strongest point, has been exceptionally disappointing.

Now, Argentina find themselves in a situation similar to the one where they made the World Cup. They need a win on their final chance to get through, and will probably hope that Messi steps up big and carries them. The only problem is, Messi has done nothing but carry them to this point, and now he has not stepped up to the stage. Argentina may not even have Sampaoli in charge for the final game, as reports in Argentina say that players asked him not to manage against Nigeria.

If you want drama in the World Cup, this is peak drama. This is Argentina’s falling-apart moment. It is do or die from here, and we could see one of the greatest players we have ever seen not even make it to the Round of 16.

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