World Cup: Lionel Messi carrying Argentina’s weight of expectation

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Argentina’s Lionel Messi carries the hopes of 44 million people and it showed as he lined up before kick-off in their crucial World Cup match against Croatia on Thursday, with the captain rubbing his forehead with his eyes closed.

The Barcelona forward has watched on as rival Cristiano Ronaldo has scored four goals in two matches for Portugal, including a hat-trick against Spain.

But the 3-0 defeat by Croatia means Argentina’s fate in Group D is now out of their hands; they need results to go their way to stay in the competition.

There were reports during the week that Messi has been feeling so down after last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Iceland that he refused to attend a barbecue organised by Argentine staff, instead staying alone in his hotel room.

If Messi’s pre-match actions on Thursday suggested a headache, it will have got worse by seeing Chelsea goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s howler, which led to Ante Rebic’s first goal in Nizhny Novgorod and contributed to Argentina’s heaviest World Cup group-stage defeat since 1958.

Former Barcelona team-mate Cesc Fabregas, providing analysis on BBC One, called Argentina a “broken team” and questioned their team spirit, saying they were “playing against each other, not for each other”.

He said: “It is difficult for Messi. He does not have the quality in behind him and is really missing Ever Banega or Giovani lo Celso.

“He needs someone who can help him build up the play. You want your best player to be on the ball the most as you can.”

Former Manchester City full-back Pablo Zabaleta – who played in the 2014 World Cup final for Argentina – said the side’s failure to “play quicker” has left Messi “isolated” in the final third.

Reflecting on the defeat, Zabaleta said: “I cannot remember a performance like that. The team looks so poor. They were predictable and did not create anything.”

Former England captain Alan Shearer added: “Argentina had no plan and were a complete shambles.”

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