In the minutes before Argentina met Croatia, high up in the stands of the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, a group of Argentinian fans unfurled a banner with an original piece of artwork featuring their two greatest footballers Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.
It depicted Maradona cradling the World Cup after leading Argentina to the trophy in 1986 next to a grinning Messi whose tattooed arm is outstretched waiting to grasp the trophy himself.
This is what was meant to happen in Russia, the passing of the trophy from Maradona to Messi, but after Argentina’s horrific 3-0 defeat to Croatia on Thursday night this is now highly unlikely.
Argentina are on the brink of being knocked out at the group stage. Today they stand ashamed and embarrassed after their heaviest defeat in a World Cup group game since 1958.
In their opening game, they stuttered to only a draw against Iceland, with Messi missing a penalty, but it was dismissed as a mere blip, which would be quickly rectified.
However, the Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic was not fooled and had seen a weakness at the heart of this Argentinian side, bravely announcing this would be his side’s “easiest game.”
This appeared to be a foolish thing to say, which Messi would surely make him regret. But, over ninety minutes Dalic was proved to be spectacularly correct.
The Croatians completely dominated Argentina, controlling the midfield with exemplary performances from wo supreme operators, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. The Argentines were bereft of ideas as Croatia passed the ball all around them, and constantly frustrated them.
The brutal truth is this Argentina side lacks a spine, in both character and personnel, for through most of the middle of the pitch they cannot boast a truly great goalkeeper, central defender or central midfielder. There is real talent in this side, but the holes have proved too big to fill.
Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli ditched the 4-2-3-1 formation he had used against Iceland and replaced it with a more attacking 3-4-3 against Croatia, but it only made them more vulnerable.
It was a curious move to revert to a back three when he had already ditched it at the end of last year, but any doubts were pushed to the back on his mind, and it employed again because it was designed to get the best out of his captain and most important player Messi.
Get the ball to Messi more and Argentina were bound to prosper, but it didn’t work out like that, and as Sampaoli has said, “We quite simply couldn’t pass to him to generate the type of situations he tends to be able to generate. We lost that battle.”
This change of tactics was meant to open up the pitch and give Messi more room to play, but Croatia were the ones to thrive in the new space and used it to punish Argentina.
Meanwhile, Messi was suddenly isolated. He touched the ball just 49 times throughout the whole game, his lowest ever in a World Cup game and a steep decline from the previous game against Iceland where he touched it 116 times.
Inside the opposition penalty area – where Messi is meant to come alive – he touched the ball just twice all game, the first time after an hour. Both Croatia and Sampaoli’s own tactics nullified him.
Denied the ball, Messi went in to his shell. He looked listless, almost drained of any fight, accepting of the reality unfolding around him.
At Barcelona, he knows a game can change in an instance, but looking around at his international teammates, it was as if he knew they didn’t have it in them.
Most damning of all, he didn’t look like he wanted to be there, and at the final whistle was the first to disappear down the tunnel.
But, we had been warned. Argentina stumbled through their qualifying campaign and Sampaoli simply doesn’t have the players to execute his most favoured tactic of high pressing up the pitch. His defence and midfield don’t have the required energy and pace.
Argentina are not quite dead yet. They are left hoping Nigeria beat Iceland on Friday and then they can run up a big score in a win against the Africans next week, while hoping Croatia can help them out by beating Iceland. It wasn’t meant to be this desperate.
And so, Messi will return home without a World Cup.
Left to instead stake his claim to be the greatest football ever on his mountain of La Liga titles, Champions Leagues and Ballon d’Ors.
It was left to Sampaoli to honestly sum up the state of his unbalanced side, “The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance…he is limited because the team doesn’t gel with him.”