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Lionel Messi key to Argentina’s FIFA World Cup 2018 success, writes Bhaichung Bhutia

Lionel Messi’s form will be the most crucial thing for Argentina as they look to register their first win of FIFA World Cup 2018 against Croatia on Thursday.

football Updated: Jun 21, 2018 09:21 IST
Bhaichung Bhutia
Bhaichung Bhutia
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
FIFA World Cup 2018,Lionel Messi,Lionel Messi FIFA World Cup 2018
Lionel Messi will be the key player for Argentina as they face Croatia in the FIFA World Cup 2018 on Thursday.(AFP)

I am not with the lot which says Croatia will prevent Argentina from going beyond the group stage. I think going into Friday’s game, they will be able to put aside the first-match blues -- of the kind Tite said affected Brazil -- and the pressure of being the runners-up last term. Should that happen, Argentina would only get better. Should that not happen? Well, we will talk about it then.

So, what does Argentina need to do? Simple, get Messi to score. It was on the back of four Man-of-the-Match performances from him that Argentina made it to a Gonzalo Higuain miss away from leading in the World Cup final. Messi will be under pressure on Friday too and hence, I hope to see Paulo Dybala take some attention off him.

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Who should Dybala replace? My money would be on Angel di Maria. He had a quiet game against Iceland, and frankly, I can’t remember when he last influenced a big game for club or country. Problem is: Dybala will have to be given a different role because he and Messi play in the same position.

That Croatia won’t be as ultra-defensive as Iceland -- why would you when Mandzukic, Modric and Rakitic pull on the same shirt -- and that could help Argentina. Argentina’s buildup tends to be like Germany but their opponents may not be as speedy as Mexico meaning Otamendi and Mascherano may not be chasing crooked shadows. Instead, Argentina could have to deal with more intricate moves given that the Croats have the experience of playing in top European leagues.

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True, Argentina would like to win against Croatia but they will have hope even if they don’t. Iceland could end up being the New Zealand of 2010 – unbeaten, yet unable to qualify for the knockout rounds -- so even if Argentina win against Nigeria, they should be through. Possibly as the second-placed team of the group and that could mean playing France in the pre-quarter finals; but at this point in time, they won’t care about that.

Japan and Senegal made Tuesday one for the underdogs. Taking nothing away from their historic win, an Asian first against a South American side, I would say it is difficult to judge a team playing against 10 men who are chasing the game from the third minute or so.

Senegal though were impressive, making the most of Poland having a terrible start. Were the Poles surprised because they didn’t know enough about Senegal? We will know by June 24 when Poland play Colombia.

Former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia is writing exclusively for Hindustan Times.

First Published: Jun 21, 2018 09:17 IST