Tick, Tock: Time running out for Messi to deliver World Cup

(AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

By STEPHEN WADE

AP Sports Writer

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) Time is running out for Lionel Messi to bring Argentina a World Cup, which would give him the one thing that's missing from a career that ranks among the greatest.

He turns 31 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 club Barcelona - four Champions League titles, and nine La Liga championships in Spain - but still no major title for Argentina.

Messi missed a penalty - it was saved - in a disappointing 1-1 draw against Iceland in the opening group match. Argentina needs to beat Croatia to clear its path from the three-game group stage to the knock-out 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 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 lineup twice in the 12 games he's been in charge for Argentina. He's juggling again, this time likely to start 22-year-old Boca Juniors forward Cristian Pavon up front with Messi. Pavon is quick and can play on the right or left and is likely to replace Angel di Maria.

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.

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has sent home striker Nikola Kalinic because he wouldn't come off the bench as a substitute against Nigeria. Kalinic, who plays for AC Milan, says he has a back injury although news reports in Croatia say he is unhappy being a substitute.

Dalic said of Kalinic, "I need players who are ready."

Croatia now has 22 players on the World Cup roster.

Sampaoli experimented after the Iceland draw with using three defenders with Mercado, Nicolas Otamendi and Nicolas Tagliafico. Mercado would replace Marcos Rojo, who was sub-par against Iceland.

Lucas Biglia is also likely to be dropped from midfield and replaced by Marcos Acuna. Giovani Lo Celso, Ever Banega and Enzo Perez are also possibilities.

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Updated June 19, 2018

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