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FIFA World Cup 2018: Argentina rally behind Lionel Messi ahead of key Croatia clash

Lionel Messi endured a tough start to the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia, having a penalty saved as Jorge Sampaoli’s men were held to a shock 1-1 draw by Iceland in their opening game.

football Updated: Jun 20, 2018 22:32 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Nizhniy Novgorod
FIFA World Cup 2018,Lionel Messi,Argentina
Lionel Messi will be key to Argentina’s plan when they take on Croatia in the FIFA World Cup 2018.(AFP)

Most of the trains heading from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday night and Thursday morning are likely to carry Argentine fans in droves going to see their team in a crucial match against Croatia.

Over the past few days, most Argentine fans have camped in Moscow, where Lionel Messi and his men played their opening game against Iceland and from where it is easier to access both Nizhny Novgorod and Saint Petersburg, the venues of their other two group games.

“All our friends are currently in Moscow and we have booked places to stay here for the first two weeks, so we will go to Nizhny and Saint Petersburg on the day of the games and return immediately after,” said Leonardo, who has travelled from Buenos Aires and will stay for the whole tournament.

“It will be great if we can reach the final but I am not very confident,” he said.

After struggling through the qualifiers, Argentina’s campaign-opener provided little encouragement for the team’s supporters as La Albiceleste were held 1-1 by the debutants with Messi seeing a penalty saved in the second half.

On Thursday, Argentina face their toughest test of the group stages when they take on a Croatia side boasting of a midfield Jorge Sampaoli would be envious of.

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With Ever Banega starting on the bench against Iceland, Argentina put in an insipid display for most of the first half and were able to pressure only late in the second half after he came on.

Messi was subject to intense scrutiny by Aron Gunnarsson and Emil Hallfredsson and it remains to be seen how Sampaoli deploys his star man against the Croats.

If he continues to play another forward alongside Messi, Sergio Aguero is likely to be the man after the Manchester City forward scored in their opener. The starting spots of the likes of Lucas Biglia and Maximiliano Meza remain less certain though both struggled against Iceland.

For Croatia, a win against Sampaoli’s team will guarantee them a spot in the next round and most likely seal the top spot in the group.

The team’s build-up to the game against Argentina has been marred by the departure of forward Nikola Kalinic after the player refused to come on as a substitute against Nigeria owing to what he claimed was an issue with his back.

On way to that win, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic opted to go without a defensive midfielder with Luka Modric paired up alongside Ivan Rakitic at the centre of the park.

That may not be the case against Argentina and Dalic will be expected to take full advantage of his side’s midfield superiority over the two-time world champions by playing Milan Badelj in the holding role.

Croatia's forward Mario Mandzukic celebrates scoring the opening goal against Nigeria. (AFP)

Doing so will allow Modric and Rakitic to have a greater say in the game, specifically given the fact that Argentina themselves may go ahead with an extra midfielder in the form of Banega. However, that would also result in a change in formation with Andrej Kramaric possibly dropped to the bench.

Unlike Iceland, whose tight, narrow formation had smothered Argentina’s vaunted attack, Croatia are likely to play a more attacking brand of football.

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That will be good news to Messi & Co. but bad news for the team’s defence which will have a tough task guarding against the likes of Mario Mandzukic.

First Published: Jun 20, 2018 12:10 IST