World Cup Group D: Argentina can't afford to be checked by Croatia
Argentina take on Croatia in Group D's second round. The teams have met four times. Argentina has two wins, Croatia the one. The only competitive meeting between the sides took place at France 98. La Albiceleste were winners in the group stage, but Croatia went to the semifinal regardless. No doubt they would take a repeat.
In this competition's opening matches, Argentina's hope of cruising through the group was checked. Iceland has a penchant for upsetting the odds. For Croatia, things appeared to start smoothly with a routine 2-0 win over Nigeria, only for controversy to hit when striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home after refusing to come on as a substitute. Nevertheless, it was a good start for their hopes of advancing out of the groups and might even help them avoid a tie with France.
Argentina are therefore the country more in need of a result. Here's how both shape up.
FIFA Ranking: 5th
It was a result no one saw coming. Argentina, with their plethora of attacking talent, was expected to cruise past Iceland, the smallest team in the tournament. Aside from one moment of genius from Sergio Aguero, La Albiceleste laboured and lacked ideas beyond giving the ball to Messi.
It seems a smart strategy, but even Messi will struggle to weave his magic on a game when constantly receiving the ball on the half-way line and being asked to do the rest. For the second time in two finals matches, he showed he was human by missing a penalty.
Manuel Lanzini, who suffered a ruptured ACL before the tournament began, was missed. His absence upset the Argentine rhythm. Sergio Romero was a loss at the back, too, but injuries cannot be an excuse.
Jorge Sampaoli could make some changes with Angel di Maria, Maximiliano Meza, Lucas Biglia and Marcos Rojo possibly dropping out for Christian Pavon, Enzo Perez, Roberto Acuna and Gabriel Mercado respectively.
FIFA Ranking: 20th
The burning question for Croatia is have they put the Kalinic incident behind them? If they haven’t, it will be an unwelcome distraction from an already difficult game.
After making the perfect start, Zlatko Dalic likely won't make changes, although Marcelo Brozovic could push hard for a start ahead of Andrej Kramaric. Otherwise, it should be a case of if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Unless Dalic has something up his sleeve for a certain Mr Messi?
Other than Kalinic, Croatia has a full squad. The result against Nigeria has given Croatia breathing room. It's easier to play a difficult match when the pressure is greater on the opponent.
Argentina should consider this a must-win match. Anything less leaves them staring down the barrel of a humiliating group stage exit, which seemed unthinkable less than a week ago.
For Croatia, a win guarantees a place in the knockouts. A draw or loss keeps the group tight but their fate will remain in their hands.
With so much at stake for Argentina, expect them to play a tight, tense match. But with their quality and pedigree, they should come through. The pressure is on Lionel Messi to produce. His biggest rival is on four goals. Two other La Liga stars are on three. The Barcelona no.10 has nothing to show for a tournament-high 11 scoring attempts.
It is time for him to step up, and his countrymen with him. Croatia won't want it to happen, but they won't be too bothered as they will have a match against Iceland to see them through.