WORLD CUP 2018

Croatia on a stop-Messi mission

Angel di Maria (second from left) having a light moment with team-mates during an Argentina training session yesterday. La Albiceleste face Croatia today knowing they need to get two tasks right: supporting their talisman Lionel Messi and clinching v
Angel di Maria (second from left) having a light moment with team-mates during an Argentina training session yesterday. La Albiceleste face Croatia today knowing they need to get two tasks right: supporting their talisman Lionel Messi and clinching victory to avoid the possibility of exiting at the group stage.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Team play crucial as they seek to defeat 'one-man team' of Argentina as a group

GROUP D

Argentina v Croatia

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NIZHNY NOVGOROD • Argentina's over-reliance on Lionel Messi has led Croatia to believe that they can beat Jorge Sampaoli's men today as long as they keep the Barcelona star striker quiet.

Argentina boast an abundance of individual talent including Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria. But they have looked ponderous and lacking in creative thrust throughout Sampaoli's year in charge.

Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw by minnows Iceland in their opener. Another adverse outcome today at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium and many may even start to consider the unthinkable - that Argentina could be on their way out at the group stage, mirroring their shock first-round exit in 2002.

Croatia reckon they can pull off a result because they believe they are collectively better than the South Americans. They are not short on top-quality players, with Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, and towering hitman Mario Madzukic in their ranks.

"Argentina depends a lot on Messi," said Real Madrid midfielder Mateo Kovacic. "We do not need to be too afraid of Argentina, we are individually better than them, except Messi."

Forward Ante Rebic went as far as to say that "Messi is 50 per cent" of Argentina.

"If we defend… all together, we have a great chance," he added.

ALL DOWN TO TEAMWORK

There is no perfect way to stop Lionel Messi... he is the greatest player in the world. But while one excellent player can make a great result, a great team does the job much better.

ZLATKO DALIC, Croatia coach, on how he feels his team are better collectively compared to Argentina.

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has unashamedly turned to midfielder Rakitic - a club-mate of Messi's - for ideas and tactics to stop him.

"I will use all the information I can," he said, declaring Rakitic his temporary "assistant" before the game. "There is no perfect way to stop Lionel Messi... he is the greatest player in the world.

"But while one excellent player can make a great result, a great team does the job much better... We will go into the game a little bit more relaxed than them."

Croatia have already secured a vital three points after their 2-0 win against Nigeria.

Messi has failed to score with his last 21 shots in matches at World Cup Finals, including a penalty miss against Iceland.

Team-mate Gabriel Mercado admitted that Messi, Argentina's record goalscorer with 64 goals, has not had enough support.

"It's almost impossible not to think about him and not giving him the ball," the defender told Fifa.com. "But in reality, this is a team game and we have to take the responsibility of our part, to free him up and let him be the one finishing the play."

Sampaoli is reportedly considering several changes for the game, including drafting in young forward Cristian Pavon for 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.

Their jobs would be to supply Messi and Aguero, the scorer against Iceland, with the kind of service on which they would thrive in a potential 3-4-3 formation.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2018, with the headline 'Croatia on a stop-Messi mission'. Print Edition | Subscribe