Despite excelling for Barcelona, Russia 2018 is turning into another international disappointment for Lionel Messi. In contrast, Ante Rebic and Croatia are looking like the team to beat.
"The national team is not a team," wrote Argentine daily La Nación on Friday morning after Argentina's 3-0 defeat to Croatia left La Albiceleste teetering on the brink of elimination from Group D – "and they don't know how to get the most out of Lionel Messi."
Even as the teams lined up for the obligatory prematch photographs in Nizhni Novgorod, something wasn't quite right. While his teammates faced the camera head on, captain Messi hovered on the edge, leaning in at an awkward angle as if he'd just set up the camera delay himself before running back around to get in the shot.
In Europe, nine-time La Liga champion, four-time Champions League winner and five-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi has little to prove to anybody. But at home, the sentiment persists that la pulga – the flea, as he is known – has failed to sprinkle that bit of magic that may have turned three recent major tournament final defeats into victory.
Instead, defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final was followed by back-to-back penalty-shootout losses to Chile in the Copa America in 2015 and 2016. And unfortunately for Messi, the heartbreak from 12 yards continued in Russia as he saw his penalty saved by Iceland's Hannes Halldorsson in Argentina's opening game.
The frustration continued against Croatia. After half-an-hour, Messi had only touched the ball 13 times. On one of those occasions, he'd even lost possession. On another, he sent a harmless cross into the arms of Danijel Subasic. By halftime, he'd dropped deeper, desperate to find a way into a physical, fast-paced encounter that was passing him by.
But the fast and furious nature of the game suited Croatia perfectly. Messi's Barcelona teammate, Ivan Rakitic, won more tackles than any other player in midfield while the majestic Luka Modric – operating in a more advanced role than he had against Nigeria – conducted the rapid Vatreni (the blazing ones) counterattacks.
'Maradona 0-1 Eintracht Frankfurt'
Croatia's potency up front didn’t go unnoticed in Germany where several Croatian players play, or have recently played, their club football – including goal scorer and Eintracht Frankfurt cup-winning hero Ante Rebic.
"Hit the ball long!" Rebic had told Frankfurt teammate Kevin-Prince Boateng ahead of the Eagles' historic 3-1 win over Bayern Munich last month. But his stunning opener against Argentina showed that he's more than just a pacey front man latching onto long balls.
Capitalizing on a botched chip from goalkeeper Willy Caballero, the 24-year-old waited patiently for the ball to fall out of the air, his eyes fixed on his target, before launching a textbook volley into the top corner and sending Croatia on their way. "Maradona 0-1 Eintracht Frankfurt," quipped German broadsheet Die Zeit.
The website of the regional public broadcaster in Frankfurt, Hessenschau, went further, praising a victory for "Team Bundesliga" – as they described a Croatian squad which also features Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen) and Marko Pjaca (on loan from Juventus at Schalke last season), not to mention ex-Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic and former Wolfsburg winger Ivan Perisic.
"What a wonderful game that was," added Die Zeit, before drawing unfavorable comparisons between the intensity of the Croatians' approach and that of the German Nationalmannschaft against Mexico.
But Argentina's collection of superstars wasn't gelling. Sergio Aguero was isolated up front, Javier Mascherano failed to get a grip on the midfield, Gabriel Mercado sycthed down Rebic and Nicolas Otamendi saw yellow after remonstrating with the referee. Paulo Dybala's entrance came too late for the Serie A top scorer to really influence the game.
And Messi's frustration was growing, boiling over as he lashed out after a foul by Ivan Strinic.
For some, especially in the binary online world of social media, Messi's international travails are conclusive evidence that Cristiano Ronaldo has come out on top in the personal duel between the two – but the whole debate is tiresome, not to mention superficial.
The bigger question is why one of the game's undoubted greats has remained such a peripheral figure for Argentina, a cloud on the edge of a pixelated sky blue photograph.