Nizhny Novgorod: Captain Lionel Messi will again be the centre of attraction when Argentina look to recover from their shock draw against Iceland and record a victory against a confident Croatia in a crucial Group D clash here on Thursday.
FC Barcelona superstar Messi missed a penalty which proved costly as Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw by ‘tiny’ Iceland in their campaign opener in Moscow.
Messi, who is widely regarded as one of the best footballers of all time, struggled in the second half to stir up renewed criticism over his failure to shine for country.
Four years after reaching the final in Brazil where they lost to Germany, Argentina’s bid to capture the ultimate glory suffered a jolt and in Croatia they would have an opponent brimming with confidence after registering a 2-0 victory over Nigeria.
If Argentina succumb to yet another defeat, they could be on their way out at the group stage, mirroring their shock first round exit in 2002.
Legend Diego Maradona called the Iceland result a “disgrace” and warned coach Jorge Sampaoli he would not be able to return to Argentina with similar performances.
Argentina had 11 unsuccessful shots, the most in a World Cup game without return by a single player since Italy’s Luigi Riva in 1970.
“We are all with him, he knows that he can count on the support of all of us more than ever,” Argentina striker Paulo Dybala was quoted as saying.
“We are here to help him every moment, and of course we will be at his side,” Dybala added.
Argentina are expected to make several changes for the game, including drafting in young forward Cristian Pavon for Angel Di Maria for more creativity up front.
Similarly in midfield, Paris Saint-Germain’s Giovani Lo Celso could start as Argentina seek more attacking options, possibly at the expense of Lucas Biglia.
Coming to Croatia, despite their win in the first match, captain Luka Modric’s charge with perjury in a corruption scandal which has rocked Croatian football does not augur well for them.
Nikola Kalinic’s ‘fake’ injury, which ruled him out of the World Cup, has left Croatia further dented. The Croatian management has sent Kalinic home reasoning that he refused to come on as a substitute during their win over Nigeria.
Croatia are expected to field an unchanged team, which also includes Messi’s Barcelona teammate Ivan Rakitic and Real Madrid star Modric.
Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic will lead Croatia’s attack. He will be flanked by Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic. Given Argentina’s attacking minded team, Croatia may opt to field a midfield of three. In that case, one of Mateo Kovacic or Marcelo Brozovic may start and one of Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic may drop to the bench.
Head coach Zlatko Dalic might again field the backline of Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and Ivan Strinic to stand in front of goelkeeper Danijel Subasic.
The teams have met only once before in the World Cup, in 1998, when Argentina won 1-0 and were the only team that year to prevent Golden Boot winner Davor Suker from scoring.