It was billed as Lionel Messi’s latest shot at redemption.
Five days on from his missed penalty against Iceland, four years and 21 successive shots since scoring at a World Cup, 13 years since his Argentina debut and three Copa America final defeats later and a World Cup one, too.
The supposed greatest player in football history without football’s greatest trophy.
So Argentina’s second Group D encounter provided Messi the platform to again prove his worth, even if that felt an absurdity in itself. After the missed penalty and the 1-1 draw with Iceland, the two dropped points he conceded afterwards were because of him, the interim period between Iceland and Croatia that he apparently cut a relatively isolated figure around camp, Messi needed a performance as much as this mishmashed Argentina needed a performance from Messi.
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Yet it never came. Throughout, their typically taciturn captain played on the periphery, a little lost in the brilliant and bonkers din all around him at a packed Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. He seemed forever on the outside looking in.
Save for the time, on 12 minutes, when Messi broke beyond the Croatia defence and his studs could only scrape Eduardo Salvio’s scooped pass, right in front of Danijel Subasic in the opposition goal. Or a moment later, when Messi released Salvio down Croatia’s right and Dejan Lovren blocked well from Maxi Meza, stationed at the edge of the penalty area.
It is where Messi is often expected to be, or where he was in his bulging Barcelona pomp, the kind of position that contributed to 32 titles with the Camp Nou club and five Ballon d’Ors in the past 14 years in Spain.
Yet that is the one crushing criticism of arguably the finest player to have played the game: his success, sustained and scarcely believable, has not come in the blue and white of Argentina.
As the game in the first-half passed him by, Enzo Perez and Mario Mandzukic each missed gilt-edged chances to open the scoring. Then, eight minutes after the interval, Messi watched motionless as Willy Caballero hashed a clearance to Ante Rebic and the Croatia forward volleyed expertly into the net.
Already on three points following Saturday’s relatively non-descript victory against Nigeria, Croatia had one foot in the last 16. Argentina had shot themselves in theirs.
Rebic and Croatia celebrated, leaving Messi to traipse to the centre circle, adjust his socks, rub his face and run his hand through his hair. Inadvertently, Caballero had placed that little more pressure upon the superstar’s shoulders.
Not long after the hour, Messi was close at hand as Subasic got both hands to smother at Meza’s feet. On 71 minutes, he wailed as substitute Pablo Dybala shot from an acute angle instead of squaring to Messi as he surged into space.
Two minutes later, after another mix-up in Argentina’s ragged and raw defence was hacked only partially clear, Messi was upended by Nicolas Tagliafico and retaliated, albeit minimally, his anger directed more at the circumstance than the challenge.
Then, the challenge deepened and it deepened and it deepened. Luka Modric, Messi’s counterpart captain and fellow No 10, dropped a shoulder on the edge of the Argentina area and arched a beautiful effort around Callabero and into the goal.
Croatia were 2-0 up with nine minutes remaining. Stationed a way away on the right, tight to the halfway line, Messi hung his head, his hands on hips. In that moment, he felt further away than ever.
Tempers then became frayed, Argentina losing their heads because they were losing the battle all over the pitch. They gave Messi scant help, scant chance for the magician to pull another rabbit from his hat. After a minor melee, Ivan Rakitic, Messi’s Barcelona teammate, struck the bar with a free kick.
In injury-time, Rakitic got his goal, rolling the ball into an empty net to worsen the wound.
The match ended and so could have Argentina’s hopes. On Tuesday, they conclude their group campaign against Nigeria; by that time, the 2014 finalists might be even less likely to advance.
Messi was one of the first to depart, off down the tunnel, his mind presumably scrambled, the weight of the world piled on. His latest shot at redemption was done. His latest shot at a World Cup, and the one trophy that eludes him still, teeters on the brink.