When Argentina were held by Iceland, there was scope to see it as a blip: a big team having a bad day at the office against a lesser light, a draw that ultimately came down to a Lionel Messi penalty miss. However, their 3-0 defeat to Croatia throws into serious doubt whether or not it was simply an accident. It suggests it's actually the best we can expect from this Messi-led Albiceleste. Last night's scoreline was a faithful reflection of the gulf between one side who were well organised and champing at the bit, and another about whom neither could be said. It was a result whose significance could be felt both in the image Argentina presented to the watching world, and the impact it had on their chances of staying in the competition. They have just one point and a goal difference of -3. Whatever happens between Nigeria and Iceland today, getting out of their group isn't going to be easy.
Messi was average against Iceland, and downright poor last night
Particularly if neither Messi nor his team-mates are going to turn up. He came to Russia knowing that, if he was to make a World Cup his own, it was now or never; this was his opportunity to finally take his place alongside Diego Maradona in the hearts of the Argentinians, and to steal a renewed march on Cristiano Ronaldo, whose relentlessness has allowed him to reel 'La Pulga' in at the top of the all-time Ballon d'Or charts. But he's nowhere to be seen. He was average against Iceland, and came away with the black mark of that spurned spot-kick - after all, Argentina would be feeling a lot better about themselves right now had they not dropped those two points - but yesterday was worse. Messi put in a passive display; he looked uninterested for much of the game, and got on the ball and ran at the Croats on precious few occasions. It was the same at 0-0, 1-0, 2-0 and 3-0. The 30-year-old cut a sullen figure who looked like he was out there against his will.
We could yet see Messi magic, but I'm less hopeful about the team around him
To be fair, Messi doesn't have much of a team surrounding him, but I still think it's reasonable to expect more from a footballer who may very well go down as the best the game has ever witnessed. He isn't completely out of time just yet; he soon could be, though. He definitely has one match in which to get his act together, but he'll need luck to be on his side to get more. We'll have to see. When it comes to the team as a whole, however, I'm less hopeful. They're an absolute rabble, right the way from a goalkeeper who tries to dink it in his own area (part of being good with your feet is also avoiding needless risks), through to a confused game plan that finds no room for class acts like Éver Banega and Paulo Dybala, who have so far had to settle for a cameo appearance each (Banega the other day, Dybala last night). A country that loves football like no other is being driven to distraction by its national team. The country of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Maradona and Messi.