Argentina On Brink Of World Cup Exit

Argentina are on the brink of a World Cup exit following their 3-0 defeat to Croatia. Adam Bate looks at where it went wrong for Lionel Messi and the rest.

The warning signs were evident to viewers all around the world when the camera panned down the line of Argentina players and reached the team's captain. Lionel Messi's hand was on his head. He looked stressed. A man burdened by the weight of expectation. If there was a sense of foreboding it was more than justified by what was to follow.

Argentina were awful in their 3-0 defeat to Croatia. It was not just that they played poorly, this was a team paralysed by fear and playing without any belief in what they were doing. Willy Caballero's woeful mistake for the opening goal was the catalyst for them to unravel but - as bad as the error was - the collapse always felt like it was coming.

Argentina are on the brink. For the first time in World Cup history, they have gone four games without a victory. If they can break that sequence against Nigeria on Tuesday, Jorge Sampaoli's team could yet reach the knockout stages. But given the disorganised rabble that they have become, it feels far from inevitable that Sampaoli will last that long.

How did it come to this? Not only are Argentine blessed by the presence of arguably the game's greatest player in their squad, but in Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain they boast two of the best strikers in the world. Paulo Dybala is a special talent too. All made it onto the pitch on Thursday night but barely fashioned a chance between them.

Much of the blame must lie with Sampaoli. He has had twelve months in which to settle upon a formation and a style of play that can bring out the best in this group of players. Against Croatia, even a basic defensive structure appeared beyond him and his team as they found themselves exposed down the flanks right from the outset.

Perhaps Messi's mood at kick-off can partially be explained by a sense of unease with the tactical decisions of his manager. He is believed to favour the four at the back system that Sampaoli went with in the opening game against Iceland because he feels that the 3-5-2 formation denies him the space in which he needs to work.

Despite the disappointment of that draw in the opening game, Messi did manage to fire off 11 shots against Iceland - still more than anyone else has managed in total at this World Cup. Against Croatia, he was restricted to just one. After getting 116 touches of the ball against Iceland, he got hold of it on only 49 occasions this time around.