Argentina’s players may want to put it to the back of their minds given the past four years but Thursday’s clash with Croatia is another final for La Albiceleste – an elusive title isn’t on the line but avoiding a potential disaster certainly is.
The disappointing draw with Iceland in their World Cup opener leaves Jorge Sampaoli’s side needing a win over Croatia to get their campaign back on track and with that in mind Argentina are looking to shuffle the pack once again.
In the year that Sampaoli has been in charge of Argentina, the starting eleven has never been repeated and after his cautious side against Iceland failed to impress, a possible 3-4-3 sees the Copa América winning coach revert back to something like his preferred system.
Unlike ahead of the Iceland game, Sampaoli didn’t confirm his side in the final press conference: “The team is not yet defined and I still haven’t confirmed it with the players so I can’t give it now.”
And while the Argentina coach didn’t want to repeat the error, that some read as overconfidence against Iceland, the eleven used in training over these days provides plenty of clues.
Gabriel Mercado will replace Marcos Rojo and line up with Nicolás Otamendi and Nicolás Tagliafico in a back three; Marcos Acuña comes in to start on the left with Eduardo Salvio keeping his place on the right; and while Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia are almost certain to lose their places, there only remains some doubt over which two of Maximiliano Meza, Enzo Pérez and Cristian Pavón will fill the roles.
Argentina probable XI: Wilfredo Caballero; Gabriel Mercado, Nicolás Otamendi, Nicolás Tagliafico; Eduardo Salvio, Javier Mascherano, Maximiliano Meza or Enzo Pérez, Marcos Acuña; Lionel Messi, Cristian Pavón or Maxi Meza; Sergio Agüero
“The system is not going to win the game, the group of players will win it,” Sampaoli told the press while discussing Thursday’s game against Croatia.
“I haven’t been in charge very long and these players all play in different clubs so it’s hard to establish a clear footballing identity so to speak. We haven’t had that much time to develop specific characteristics.
“What we try to do is adapt to the situation and slowly but surely we try to develop approaches that generate a style of play. We don’t want the structure of the team to hamper individual talent because matches are going to be won by the players.”
Certainly as an attacking force, Sampaoli must find a way of taking some of the weight off Lionel Messi and both from a tactical and emotional stand point, the Argentina coach made reference to his captain.
“When he [Messi] has two or three opponents trying to block him, somewhere on the pitch a teammate is free, as happened against Iceland. We need to take advantage of that.”
Messi’s penalty miss provided the Iceland game with its talking point and while some wanted to blame the Argentina number ten and leap to immediate comparisons with Diego Maradona leading the Albiceleste to the title in 1986, Sampaoli was quick to silence such talk.
“When you score with the Argentina jersey, we all take credit for it. But when Argentina loses, it’s all Leo’s fault. I think that’s quite unfair treatment. It’s a lot of pressure for a single player to stand. I have to say I feel responsible for that missed penalty.
“Messi can’t be the only guilty one. I think that’s too easy a way for Argentinians to think.
“He and Maradona are different. Their contexts are different. Messi is a hero for Argentina as Maradona was at his time. We need to take advantage of that.”
For all of Sampaoli’s tinkering there is no time left and while the reliance on Messi will still be there it has to be enough to get past Croatia before the final group game against Nigeria.
“We need to move on to the next round, that’s what we came here for. We don’t want to go into the last match without having resolved the matter, we want to resolve it tomorrow which is why we are going to play with a far more flexible squad and setup than we had in the first match.
“It’s going to be difficult. Croatia have a generation of outstanding players who have just won,” Sampaoli admitted.
It will indeed be difficult and while Argentina go into the game full of apprehension, Croatia are relaxed after a 2-0 win over Nigeria gave the Vatreni their best start to a World Cup since 1998.
As a result Croatian coach Zlatko Dali says the pressure is off his side, “The match against Argentina is the easiest game for us at the World Cup because we already have three points and we play against a big opponent.
“We have nothing to lose in that game. I’ll tell my players before the start of the game just to enjoy the spectacle.”
Croatia were far from spectacular against a poor Nigeria side but will perhaps feel confident that Luka Modric and Ivan Rakatic can win the midfield battle. Dali’s side will not give up possession as easily as Iceland and while Messi may get a little more space, Argentina’s creaking defence is likely to get far more stretched.
Having scored in each of their last five World Cup games, Croatia are on their best streak in the competition and Mario Mandzukic will fancy his chances of getting a good sight at goal at some point.
Croatia possible XI: Danijel Subasic; Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic; Ivan Rakitic, Milan Badelj; Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic; Mario Mandzukic
This will be the fourth meeting between the two sides and Argentina have a record of won two, drawn one, lost one – the only defeat coming in a friendly in 2006 and the only competitive game coming at the 1998 World Cup where a Mauricio Pineda goal won it.
Croatia have lost all four of their World Cup meetings with South American sides, once in each of the four tournaments they’ve played in and Lionel Messi has scored in each of his two previous appearances against Croatia, including his first ever goal for Argentina (March 2006).