Argentina vs Croatia: It was in 1913 that Racing became the first non-Anglo side to win the Argentinian league title. For much of the century that has followed, Argentinian football has defined itself in opposition to the English, distancing itself from its British heritage. And yet, under pressure, in their frenzied desperation, Argentina resembled nobody so much as England.
Had this been the final group game, the loss of discipline might have been explicable. But it was not. A 1-0 defeat Argentina could, plausibly, have got away with. Even 2-0 was just about rescuable. But now they are looking at probably having to put at least three past Nigeria in their final game while hoping the other result goes their way. Perhaps Lionel Messi has one last miracle in him, but this would be his greatest yet.
Messi himself was barely involved. He touched the ball only 49 times, and only six times in the final quarter hour.
When his country looked to him, he simply wasn’t there. It’s ludicrous, of course, that one player should be under such pressure, that everything should be about him, particularly when it was his display in Ecuador that got Argentina to Russia, particularly in a nation with such a proud football history as Argentina, with so many other great talents in their squad, but it’s increasingly coming to see that the Messi dependence that has benighted Argentina for so long can be solved in only one way.
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) June 22, 2018
Just before the second half began, Sampaoli took his place on the bench and looked almost ill, his face grey and sheened with sweat. The sense then was that he knew his side were on the brink. By the end, his jacket was off and he was reduced to waving his heavily tattooed arms in a vague lifting gesture, helpless to check the anarchy unfolding in front of him. For the defensive collapse, Messi is not at fault.
Sampaoli will be held responsible and, assuming the Argentinian Football Association can find the money to pay his compensation, he will almost certainly be dismissed. But the blame goes far deeper and begins far earlier.
Sampaoli was the third coach Argentina had used in qualifying. His football, predicated on a high line and a ferocious press, was not a natural fit for Argentina’s fleet of lumbering defenders and he never had the time to find a solution. But ripping up the blueprint he had unveiled only a couple of weeks ago after one game smacked of panic.
He is not the first Argentina coach to be chewed up by the chaos that surrounds the job, and he will not be the last.