These are not, indeed, the best of times for Argentina coach, Jorge Sampaoli. After starting the 2018 World Cup Group D opening round with a draw against debutant Iceland last Saturday, pressure mounts on the gaffer as the Albiceleste takes on Croatia that defeated Nigeria 2-0 to lead the group this night in Novgorod.
Already, Argentina’s football legend, Diego Armando Maradona, has spoken the minds of the football loving South American nation, warning that inability of Sampaoli to qualify the 2014 runners-up in Brazil from the group will not be a welcome development.
And the statistics of Argentina’s last three games at the Mundial have not been good. Albiceleste’s last win four years ago was the 1-0 quarter-final defeat of Belgium. This was followed by the penalty shootout victory over The Netherlands in the semi-finals. Can La Albiceleste break the sequence as they take on the Croatians who have been bolstered by the win over Nigeria?
Last Saturday’s unexpected draw with Iceland has left Sampaoli’s men with much to do ahead of what looks to be their toughest assignment in the section. A win is vital if they are to avoid a nerve-wracking final match. Yet if there is one thing that Argentina proved on their tortuous journey to Russia it is that they can respond when under pressure.
Sampaoli is expected to ring the changes, both in terms of tactics and personnel against Croatia. His aim is to fashion a starting line-up that remains competitive but which can also play better football and penetrate the opposition defence down the flanks.
Speed of response and the ability to keep their shape will also be crucial for the Argentines at the back, as will the need to sharpen their finishing.
After making their best start to a World Cup in 20 years with the defeat of Nigeria, Croatia on the other hand is in a relaxed mood ahead of this meeting with Argentina.
Any kind of result against Argentina will allow the Vatreni to take a big step towards the Round of 16.
Speaking after the Nigeria game, Mario Mandzukic said Croatia’s objective was to perform well and, if they could, emulate the nation’s run at France 1998, the only occasion on which they advanced beyond the group phase in their previous four world finals appearances.
Judging by Croatia’s last few training sessions, coach Zlatko Dalic will be making some changes.
After deploying four midfielders against the Nigerians, he is said to be considering whether to field fewer against the Argentines or to put the emphasis on keeping possession by sending out more creative players. The Vatreni are unlikely, however, to adopt the same defensive strategy pursued by Iceland.
ARGENTINA: Caballero; Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio, Mascherano, Meza, Acuna; Messi, Aguero, Pavon.
CROATIA: Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic; Rakitic, Badelj; Brozovic, Modric, Perisic; Mandzukic.