Messi made mortal by inept Sampaoli
Argentina 0-3 Croatia
Argentina and Leo Messi stand on the edge of a fully deserved elimination, their fate out of their hands, because of the feet of Willy Caballero and the curious and frazzled mind of Jorge Sampaoli.
Far from putting the pieces in place for conquest, the manager only set up a collapse that has been long coming.
Sure, Caballero's ludicrously bad mistake gifted Croatia the first goal of a 3-0 win that also secured last-16 qualification - although followed by a ludicrously good finish by Ante Rebic - but only after Sampaoli had somehow sent out a system that diminished all of their best talents.
Not least those of Messi, who disappeared from view along with his team's chances. He did nothing, and was nowhere, and that means he could define Argentina in a way he would never have desired. They did nothing, and may finish nowhere.
"It's not the boss's partial responsibility, it's his total responsibility," said Sampaoli, taking the blame for a calamitous night that unravelled after Caballero's miscued dinked pass opened the door for Croatia.
"It's not right to blame Caballero," added Sampaoli. "If I'd planned things differently, it would have worked out differently ... I honestly thought the plan for this match was going to put pressure on the opponent. But after the disaster of the first goal, it was tough, we were lost emotionally."
The only piece of genius in a poor game instead came from Luka Modric, who sealed victory with a sensational late drive before Ivan Rakitic really wrapped up this gift of a win.
Argentina now really need to hope Nigeria get a result against Iceland today, but even if that happens and Sampaoli's side then beat the African team, it will mean Croatia will top the group and could feasibly rest players against the Nordic country.
Argentina can complain about the bad luck or bad decision of Rebic staying on the pitch after what looked a red-card offence before his goal, but they should really be looking to the long series of mistakes that led to this, their first group-stage defeat since 2002 and likely their swiftest tournament exit since that calamity.
This, on so many levels, was worse. It's also difficult to see how Sampaoli could have done a job that was worse. It was all that bad. His shocked face at 1-0 said much. His panicked subsequent substitions said even more. After so much discussion and decision about the tactical "design" of the side, he eventually threw on two of their best players in Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain. Argentina immediately looked better, but the damage was already done.
And what a first blow it was. What a second competitive game this was for Caballero, too. With his selection already one of many decisions that had brought Sampaoli's logic into question, there was little logic here. Just a moment of chaos and another calamity.
With the game in the balance on 53 minutes, Gabriel Mercado played the ball back to Caballero under little pressure, only for the keeper to feebly lift the ball into the air for Rebic to power past him.
That was really that for the game, and could be that for Argentina's World Cup.
It might be argued that this concentration on Sampaoli's side does Croatia a disservice but the remarkable thing about a 3-0 win over the two-time world champions with one of the best players in history was that Zlatko Djalic's side weren't even that good. What mattered was how shambolic Argentina were, and there's one primary reason for that here: Sampaoli.
If the fundamental objective of management - especially for a tactician like Sampaoli - is to cover as much space of a pitch as possible and look to enhance your available abilities, the manager's system, incredibly, did the opposite.
Argentina gave up space - especially on the extremely-exposed flanks with that farcical three-man backline - and minimised their abilities, not least those of Messi whose role in the side is to stay as close to goal as possible.
It ultimately ensures he is not involved, there are wide-open spaces all around, and their least technically-able players - in this case Eduardo Salvio, Max Meza, Marcos Acuna and Enzo Perez - are on the ball more than anyone.
This problem was illustrated with Perez's 29th-minute miss as Nicolas Tagliafico and Meza combined to kind of rush the ball into the area, only for the midfielder to miss an open goal.
Croatia were much less than the sum of their parts, too. It was amazing that a team featuring Modric and Rakitic could be responsible for such chaos.
What was weirdest, though, was the display of Messi.
The rationale for his high role in the side here is that he is wasted against deep defences when more withdrawn, but Croatia were not that. They were not Iceland. There was plenty of space to exploit. And yet there was Messi, on the fringes of the game.
There were also many moments when he found himself yards away from team-mates who were on the ball, but could not seem to get it to him.
That problem only showed itself more profoundly when Croatia went into the lead with that ridiculous goal. Sampaoli then so tellingly introduced Higuain and he immediately impressed with a cut-back for someone to run on to… only that was again Meza rather than Messi. The former missed, the latter was crowded out. Croatia eventually cut loose.
The last goal then capped it all as, with Argentina players falling over themselves to chase the ball as they fell apart, Croatia really did just pass it into the net. They now pass through to the next round. Argentina need a favour to get there, but on this evidence they need a miracle.
There could never be a worse time, then, for Messi to look so mortal. (© Independent News Service)