Time running out for Messi to deliver World Cup
Lionel Messi (Getty Images)
Russia - Time is running out for Lionel Messi to bring Argentina a Soccer World Cup, which would give him the one thing that's missing from a career that ranks among the greatest.
The Barcelona star turns 31-years-old on Sunday, which means this World Cup could be his last chance. It also means that Thursday's match against Croatia is momentous.
He has delivered for his Spanish club - four Champions League titles, and nine La Liga championships - but still no major titles for Argentina.
Messi missed a penalty - it was saved - in a disappointing 1-1 draw against Iceland in the opening group match.
Argentina need to beat Croatia to clear its path from the three-game group stage to the knockout round of 16.
"We have to look at what we need to correct from the Iceland match, but we can't dwell on it," Argentina defender Gabriel Mercado said. "We have to look forward and win the next match against Croatia."
The Croatians opened their tournament campaign with a 2-0 win over Nigeria, putting them in a better spot in Group D than Argentina when the teams meet on the banks of the Volga in Nizhny Novgorod.
Jorge Sampaoli hasn't used the same line-up twice in the 12 games he's been in charge of the South Americans.
On Thursday, he is set to juggle again, with 22-year-old Boca Juniors forward Cristian Pavon likely to start up front with Messi.
As with all the Argentina coaches before him, Sampaoli has searched for the right partnership with Messi, who has often carried Argentina by himself and is always compared with Maradona, who brought Argentina its last World Cup title in 1986.
"I think that Jorge is looking at every position. We'll see what happens and what he decides on the day," Pavon said.
"I feel confident and luckily things are going well for me, but I don't know yet if I'll be a starter."
It's hard to believe, but Argentina has not won a major title since taking the Copa America - the South American championship - in 1993. That's 25 years ago; a quarter century of drought for a country that sees itself as soccer royalty.
What two-time champion Argentina has felt recently is only bitter defeat: the losing finalist against Germany in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and two more runner-up finishes in the 2015 and 2016 at the Copa America - both times against Chile.