Nizhny Novgorod: There were still a few minutes left but no hope. Lionel Messi stood in the centre circle, waiting for the game to resume; he must have also wished that it was already over. The captain had his hands on hips, hearts in the mouths of Argentina fans. Life was being sucked out slowly.
It was a quiet descent into failure for the Albiceleste's biggest star. For the second game running, Messi had turned in a display that left little to talk about. He seemed in a contemplative mood throughout the evening. There will be more of that in the coming days as Argentina battle thoughts of group stage elimination.
Croatia's manager Zlatko Dalic said after the match, "Argentina was not confused, we were excellent." But confusion was writ large on the faces of everyone within the Argentinean camp. It was incomprehensible that the team could not execute manager Jorge Sampaoli's simple plan " get the ball to Messi.
Instead, the captain looked forlorn. Walking, jogging, dithering. A few steps to the left, a few to the right, without having any influence on the game. He could merely aspire for the ball, no more. As Luka Modric remarked in the post-match press conference, "We cut out their passing lines to Messi, to limit the creativity of their most dangerous player."
But he could be dangerous only if he was allowed to have the ball. Remarkably, Messi had foreseen this situation when he invited Sampaoli for a barbecue at his place in March. The Barcelona star advised his coach to not field a 3-5-2 since that restricts his access to areas in which he feels he can be more decisive. Instead, he wished to play in a 4-4-1-1 formation in which he would nominally be the playmaker behind the striker but would actually operate slightly deeper to impact proceedings.
Sampaoli accepted Messi's suggestion back then but clearly he changed his mind again. This meant that even when Messi had the ball on Thursday, his interventions were peripheral. The distance was becoming tough to bear. At one point in the first period, after the referee had awarded a free-kick deep in Croatia's half, Messi just picked the ball up and threw it back to Vida, albeit innocuously. The frustration threatened to burst over but it was left gurgling on the inside.
The initiative gradually dimmed too. Minutes after the second half started, a Sergio Aguero knockdown was ripe for Messi to collect and run into space. But he merely looked on from distance.
Of Messi's 27 completed passes on the night, eight were delivered to Enzo Perez who is the kind of player likely to sneer at the term 'key passes'. Furthermore, only once was Messi able to make a run into the opposition penalty area. By then, three-fourths of the match had passed him and Argentina by. When the final whistle blew, Messi had lost the ball (thrice) more than he had won it back (two times).
Sampaoli's loosening of the leash had brought no reward too. Argentina wore the crazy look of a 4-2-4 formation for the final half hour. Sadly it is not 1958, even if Messi is as good as Pele. Croatia had all the gifts to exploit the enlarged pitch thereafter and the defeat turned out be humbling rather than heroic for the South Americans. It is, of course, never too wise to bet on one man. Especially on a day when Messi was barred from entering the opposition box. Unlike the game against Iceland, he could not even provide his team the solace of attempting nine shots. The pre-match warm up routine which sees him practice dead ball shooting from 20 yards did not come handy.
Sampaoli's simple plan, as it turned out, was more complex than envisaged. The manager's tinkering has left this Argentina side feeling lost, a bumbling bunch which supplicates its saviour at the slightest hint of trouble. Nobody else but Messi can be sure of their place in the team, although some of them walk into it because the resources are so bare. It should not come as a surprise then that under Sampaoli, Argentina have not fielded the same line-up in any of the 13 matches he has overseen since taking charge last year.
In this scenario, it becomes even more obvious why Argentinean fans chant Messi's name incessantly. He's the only certainty, in good times and bad. But the rallying call was hoarse and tired on Thursday. It could be explained by the Albiceleste supporters' tendency to sing and dance whenever they run into each other. But the tiredness with the way things are was tough to miss as Argentina floundered yet again. "Messi. Messi. Messi!" they cried out. No answer. Those Messi jerseys which tens of thousands wore on the night must have felt heavy.
The players are getting weary too. Before Kun Aguero walked away from the stadium on Thursday night, he had a few words for the press which revealed possible tensions within the side. When asked about Sampaoli's admission that his plan was flawed today, Aguero replied tersely, "Let him say what he wants."
The disapproval spreads further. Sampaoli's lack of courage in his organisation of the team, which is uncharacteristic of him, has rubbed those on the outside the wrong way. Even on Thursday, the manager took too long to respond to an obvious flaw in his strategy. It took only a few minutes to learn that Croatia were too quick for the Argentineans, yet Sampaoli persisted with the three-man defence for about an hour. Nobody could have disagreed with the manager's insistence to hold himself responsible for the defeat, even if it was a ploy to shield his players and the prized jewel.
Sampaoli's thoughts on Messi in the aftermath of the match, though, put some of the blame on the rest of his side. "The reality of the squad clouds Messi's brilliance. Leo is limited because the team doesn't gel." But in a sense, this was a Riquelme-esque performance by Messi. The further his team slipped, the more subdued became its leader. The shift to a four-man defence and more offensive tactics did energise him for a bit but Messi returned to the margins soon. Even the exuberant Dybala could not bring a visitation from the genius that lives within Messi.
It may get tiresome for Argentina's talisman again. Messi retired in 2016, demoralised by a third straight defeat with the Albiceleste in a major final. But he may question his decision to return if Argentina's time at the World Cup comes to an early end on Tuesday. His teammates took the blame for the losses in the World Cup 2014, and the Copa America tournaments in 2015 and 2016. Will Sampaoli be remembered as the man who held Messi back in 2018? We will know very soon.