YEKATERINBURG, Russia, June 21, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Lionel Messi is under pressure to deliver for Argentina against Croatia on Thursday after France became the third team to reach the World Cup knockout stage.
The Barcelona forward had a first game to forget, failing to convert a penalty as the two-time world champions drew 1-1 with Iceland in their Group D opener.
In stark contrast, his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who last month won his fifth Champions League winner’s medal, has already scored four goals in Russia and looks a shoo-in to win his sixth world player of the year award.
1998 winners France joined Russia and Uruguay in the last 16 with a 1-0 win against Peru, who cannot now progress from the group stage after two defeats.
Paris Saint-German star Kylian Mbappe tapped into an empty net in the 34th minute in Yekaterinburg and the South Americans were unable to respond.
Mbappe is now the youngest French goalscorer at a World Cup, aged 19 years and 183 days, beating David Trezeguet’s record of 20 years and 246 days.
Denmark, also in France’s Group C, stayed on course for the knockout rounds after drawing 1-1 with Australia in the early game of the day in Samara.
Christian Eriksen’s half-volley was cancelled out by Mile Jedinak’s VAR-assisted penalty after Yussuf Poulsen’s handball, giving Denmark four points, while Australia are stuck on one point.
Australia coach Bert van Marwijk said the “last piece of the puzzle” — goals — was missing for his side who had several chances to win the game, leaving their survival hanging by a thread.
“We had chances to win and we deserved to win, so I’m disappointed,” the Dutchman said.
“The last part of the puzzle is that we must make the difference by scoring one goal more than the opponent.”
– Closing ranks –
Messi’s teammates have rallied around their superstar captain after his disappointing performance against Iceland.
He is bearing the weight of expectations as Argentina seek a first World Cup trophy since 1986 and is desperate to crown his glittering career with a major international tournament success.
A defeat against the Luka Modric-led Croatians in Nizhny Novgorod could see Argentina, unthinkably, flirting with a first exit at the group stage since 2002.
“We are all with him, he knows that he can count on the support of all of us more than ever,” said Argentina forward Paulo Dybala of Messi.
“We are here to help him every moment, and of course we will be at his side.”
Croatia secured three points in a 2-0 win against Nigeria in their opening game but enter the match under a cloud.
AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home from Russia for reportedly refusing to come on as a substitute, though coach Zlatko Dalic said the AC Milan man had a back injury.
– Russia celebrate –
Russia have defied pre-tournament predictions that they would struggle by qualifying for the knockout round for the first time since the Soviet era. They will be joined by Uruguay, condemning Mohamed Salah’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia to an early exit from Group A.
Morocco will also be leaving Russia after the first round following their defeat by European champions Portugal, who are level with Spain on four points at the top of Group B.
Former England captain David Beckham has tipped England to play Argentina in the World Cup final after a positive start against Tunisia.
“I think obviously my choice would be England to win the competition, but that’s me being biased and passionate about my country,” Beckham said.
And former FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he believes the World Cup should return to England when Europe next gets its turn to host the tournament.
Blatter has arrived in Moscow to attend matches at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin despite being banned from the game for alleged corruption during his 17 years at the head of world football.