It took 90 minutes to put Argentina in a state of crisis. Another such 90 minutes would result in a full-blown panic as the Albiceleste look to tighten Group D on Thursday when they face leader Croatia in Nizhny Novogorod.
The 2014 runner-up was the first major power to absorb a shock scoreline Saturday when World Cup debutant Iceland held the two-time champion to a 1-1 draw. All the talk after the match centered around Lionel Messi, whose penalty in the 64th minute was stopped by keeper Hannes Halldorsson, and a lack of incisive finishing as the Albiceleste unloaded 27 shots while putting just seven on frame.
Sergio Aguero accounted for the goal, which was canceled out four minutes later in the first half. Even while having more than 70 percent of possession, the Albiceleste still looked tentatively in open play when Iceland had the ball.
Croatia climbed to the top of the group with a workmanlike 2-0 victory over Nigeria in its opener. The seasoned Vatreni squad took advantage of an own goal in the first half and a penalty by Luka Modric in the second as both goals originated on corner kicks, with the latter coming on a rare defensive foul called in the penalty area.
Despite the comfortable scoreline, Croatia did not put a shot on target during open play until second-half stoppage time. The Vatreni were rarely under stress save a five-minute sequence after the restart in which they conceded three corner kicks, but Danijel Subasic was hardly troubled.
A victory, coupled with a draw in the match Friday between Iceland and Nigeria, would see Croatia through to the round of 16 for the first time since its maiden appearance in 1998 when the Vatreni finished third. Such a result would teeter Argentina on the edge of a group play exit, something that has not happened since 2002 and only two times prior.
LAST TIME OUT
Argentina’s inability to break down a well-disciplined Iceland weighed heavily on Messi, who did all he was asked by coach Jorge Sampaoli. The Barcelona man backtracked deeper into the midfield to collect the ball and start the attack, often linking up with Angel Di Maria, but the PSG winger could not find an escape route on the left side to create many clear-cut chances.
Aguero was industrious but failed to threaten beyond converting his chance and drawing Messi’s penalty. The hope for the Albiceleste on the other side of the pitch is that keeper Willy Caballero shook off the nerves after a shaky debut in which his spilled save allowed Iceland to equalize.
Some of the good vibes from Croatia’s win were quickly wiped away Monday when coach Zlatko Dalic sent home striker Nikola Kalinic for refusing to enter Saturday’s game as a substitute. While Kalinic claimed he had a back injury, the AC Milan man also did not enter when asked in the Vatreni’s friendly against Brazil prior to the World Cup, and Dalic ran out of patience with the 30-year-old.
Sampaoli is expected to change both personnel and formation for this match, opting for a three-man back in order to take advantage of pace on the flanks. While Messi would be on the left wing in the 3-4-3 Argentina is expected to open with, he will undoubtedly range into the middle and tuck inside with Salvio likely providing support on the left.
In terms of personnel, Salvio would replace Di Maria and Marcos Acuna is expected to crack the lineup at the expense of Lucas Biglia on the right.
With the word filtering out about Sampaoli’s changes, Dalic has some decisions of his own with regards to formation. One possibility would be having Andrej Kramaric in a more reserved role slotted between Modric and Ivan Rakitic to flood the midfield and slow Messi’s backtrack to the ball.
The changes Sampaoli is expected to make could very well define his tenure with the Albiceleste. He may have been slow to remove Di Maria, who lasted until the final quarter-hour, but sometimes players simply have to put the ball in the back of the net. He can’t control Messi having a penalty stopped, but he can use a quicker hook.
Dalic made all the needed moves with his three substitutes, having confidence in his team’s maturity to see out the final half-hour with a lead after swapping out Kramaric on the hour for a more defensive midfielder in Marcelo Brozovic while letting Modric take on all the playmaking responsibilities. The lone concern is how the Vatreni respond to what will look to be wholesale changes to Argentina’s shape in the first quarter-hour.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Maxi Meza (MF)
With Di Maria expected to be dropped, there will be more scrutiny on the right flank with Meza, who failed to distinguish himself versus Iceland before being lifted late for Gonzalo Higuain. If the Independiente winger fails to spark, Sampaoli may have a quick hook for Meza and turn to either Di Maria, Biglia or Higuain even earlier.
Dejan Lovren (D)
After an exceptional performance in a losing effort in the Champions League final for Liverpool, Lovren turned in a professional effort versus Nigeria. He will have to find that Champions League level again in matching wits with Aguero, who he is intimately familiar with in his Premier League clashes with Manchester City. Aguero’s work rate always goes unnoticed until he doesn’t have results, but Lovren is keenly aware the Argentina international will pop up all over the final third in support of Messi.
Per Ladbrokes, Argentina is a 21-20 favorite while Croatia is listed as a 14-5 underdog. The odds of a draw are slightly better than the underdog at 11-5. Oddsmakers feel very strongly about Messi atoning himself by scoring the first goal, giving him 3-1 odds. Aguero is close behind at 7-2, followed by Higuain at 4-1. Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic is the top option for the opposition at 7-1, slightly longer than there being no goal-scorer (13-2).
Is an overreaction better or worse than no reaction? That is the question facing Sampaoli, who has opted for the former to jump-start Argentina’s bid to get out of Group D. However, all of his changes in the grand scheme of things are peripheral because the ball will be at Messi’s feet for the majority of the time the Albiceleste has the ball.
That share of possession will not be as overwhelming against Croatia as it was against Iceland, but the Vatreni as a collective and individually in the midfield are far too savvy to be pushed and pulled for gaps to open that Messi will skip through before taking a shot at the top of the penalty area or closer. Dropping Kramaric into that reserve role will only muck up the midfield further, which might be the most effective way of stopping Messi.
There is understandable curiosity of the dynamic between Dalic and his players after he exiled Kalinic, but having pro’s pros in Modric, Rakitic, Lovren and Ivan Perisic means there shouldn’t be any dissension in the locker room and no tears wept.
Croatia’s biggest challenge may be walking the line between playing with a margin of error and taking advantage of the chance to push Argentina to the edge of elimination. A victory ahead of their grudge match with Iceland, who pipped the Vatreni in UEFA qualifying, would allow Dalic to rest anyone on a yellow card and keep his players fresh for the round of 16.
It’s all there for Croatia, but look for Argentina to have enough to be frustrated into another 1-1 draw.