Messi feels pain as World Cup dream turns to nightmare
MOSCOW, Russia – Lionel Messi sloped off down the tunnel in Nizhny Novgorod with his head bowed, knowing Argentina face the humiliation of a group-stage exit at the World Cup in Russia.
The Barcelona star was silenced by a far superior Croatia side in a brutal 3-0 defeat that left the South Americans needing an unlikely series of results to keep their hopes of reaching the knockout stages alive.
The World Cup is likely to lose the man who – along with Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo – has dominated and defined football for a decade.
Messi is just days short of his 31st birthday and fans may be witnessing him on football's biggest stage for the final time – a talent curiously unfulfilled at international level despite his astonishing feats for his club.
"After they scored we were emotionally broken and we didn't have any footballing arguments to change the course of events,” said Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli.
He said his team did not "gel" and plans to feed Messi with more of the ball failed.
Second-half goals from Ante Rebic – the first from a horrendous error by Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero – Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic sealed a deserved victory for the European side and ensured their passage into the last 16.
Sampaoli begged for forgiveness from Argentina's fans and said the rout was his fault entirely. He apologized to supporters left in tears in the Nizhny Novgorod stadium on the banks of the River Volga on Thursday, June 21.
"First and foremost, I would beg for their forgiveness, especially those who came great distances to see Argentina," said the softly spoken Sampaoli.
"I am responsible for this result but I was as dreamy-eyed as the fans."
Weight of expectations
Messi hinted before the start of this World Cup that he could quit international football after the tournament, having already retired in 2016 before swiftly reversing his decision.
After missing a penalty in the opening 1-1 draw with Iceland in Argentina's first game in Russia, there was little doubt Messi was looking to atone against Croatia.
But he appeared tense even before kick-off, his body language betraying a man feeling the weight of expectations as he nervously rubbed his forehead amid deep contemplation during the national anthems.
An early darting run within seconds of the start suggested it could be his night, but it was not to be.
Messi was almost invisible as he was restricted to just 20 touches in an alarmingly subdued first half.
Only strike partner Sergio Aguero was less involved, with even goalkeeper Willy Caballero seeing the ball more frequently.
Feet on the ground
Modric hailed Croatia's "deserved" victory, but called on them to keep their "feet on the ground" after qualifying for the knockout rounds.
"Let's not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves," said Real Madrid midfielder Modric, who scored the second goal.
"Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let's keep our feet firmly on the ground.
"Our team effort throughout (was the key) and particularly in the second half when we had more possession.
"In the first half when Argentina had the ball we cut off Messi and stopped him getting the ball. We created three clear chances which we missed. But in the second half it opened up and we deserved to win." – Rappler.com