Messi feels pain as World Cup dream turns to nightmare
Lionel Messi sloped off down the tunnel in Nizhny Novgorod with his head bowed, knowing Argentina face the humiliation of a group-stage exit at the World Cup in Russia.
The Barcelona star was silenced by a far superior Croatia side in a brutal 3-0 defeat that left the South Americans needing an unlikely series of results to keep their hopes of reaching the knockout stages alive.
The World Cup is likely to lose the man who - along with Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo - has dominated and defined football for a decade.
Messi is just days short of his 31st birthday. We may be witnessing him on football's biggest stage for the final time - a talent curiously unfulfilled at international level despite his astonishing feats for his club.
Argentina lost the 2014 World Cup final 1-0 to Germany after extra time, before suffering successive defeats by Chile on penalties in Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016.
Messi hinted before the start of this World Cup that he could quit international football after the tournament, having already retired in 2016 before swiftly reversing his decision.
After missing a penalty in the opening 1-1 draw with Iceland in Argentina's first game in Russia, there was little doubt Messi was looking to atone against Croatia.
But he appeared tense even before kick-off, his body language betraying a man feeling the weight of expectations as he nervously rubbed his forehead amid deep contemplation during the national anthems.
An early darting run within seconds of the start suggested it could be his night, but it was not to be.
Messi was almost invisible as he was restricted to just 20 touches in an alarmingly subdued first half.
Only strike partner Sergio Aguero (seven) was less involved, with even goalkeeper Willy Caballero seeing the ball more frequently.
His hat-trick to take Argentina to the World Cup had papered over gaping cracks, rescuing their campaign at the last, but the faultlines were plain to see on Thursday.
A howler from Caballero gifted Croatia the lead. Messi went close when a sliding block from Barcelona teammate Ivan Rakitic denied him from close range but he was powerless to prevent Argentina's demise.
He desperately dropped back just in front of the defence at times to collect the ball but was repeatedly greeted by a wall of black Croatia shirts.
Two late goals drove a dagger into Argentina's heart and Messi's flickering hopes, leaving the five-time world player of the year seemingly destined never to win football's greatest prize.
It is all in stark contrast to the heroics of his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who already has four goals at the World Cup and looks a shoo-in for a sixth world player of the year award.
"The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Leo's brilliance. He is limited because the team doesn't gel with him as it should," was the verdict of coach Jorge Sampaoli.
The dream goes on for Ronaldo, also in his fourth and likely final World Cup, although Sampaoli was reluctant to be drawn on comparisons between the eternal rivals.
"I think Cristiano is a great player, you can look at all he has achieved for his club and his country," he said. "Right now we shouldn't compare these two players."
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