Messi’s Argentina in World Cup last-chance saloon

Last chance at World Cup glory? Lionel Messi turned 31 on Sunday
AFP

Saint Petersburg (AFP) – Lionel Messi’s Argentina face their World Cup day of destiny, needing a win to have any chance of progressing after France topped their group despite a stalemate against Denmark.

The French and the Danes produced the first goalless match of the tournament in front of 78,000 spectators at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Didier Deschamps rested goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and midfielder Paul Pogba among six changes and his side struggled to create any clear-cut chances against a determined Denmark, who will likely meet Croatia for a place in the quarter-finals.

France will discover their opponents in the next round later on Tuesday, when Argentina need to beat Nigeria in Saint Petersburg to stand a chance of qualifying.

Australia will go back to the drawing board after they ended bottom of Group C with a solitary point following a 2-0 defeat to Peru, who are also heading home.

Andre Carrillo and Paolo Guerrero, the veteran who was only cleared to play days before the tournament after having a ban for taking cocaine lifted, scored in Sochi.

Tim Cahill, the 38-year-old Australian midfielder, came on as a substitute for his first appearance in his fourth World Cup but was unable to influence the outcome and the Socceroos will have to look to the future with talents such as 19-year-old Iranian-born Daniel Arzani.

Australia needed a win to stand any chance of reaching the last 16 for the first time since 2006, but they were undone by Carrillo’s 18th-minute strike and Guerrero’s goal early in the second half.

– VAR chaos –

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Spain reached the last 16 on Monday but both were put under severe pressure on a chaotic night when the video assistant referee (VAR) system played a significant role.

Spain, who will play Russia in Moscow on Sunday, ended up topping Group B by virtue of goals scored but only after an injury-time strike by Iago Aspas — confirmed by VAR after a three-minute-long review — ensured a 2-2 draw.

In Saransk, Ronaldo was at the heart of a series of VAR incidents. First he had a penalty saved by Iran ‘keeper Ali Beiranvand and was later rescued by a review as Iran’s players called for him to be sent off after elbowing Morteza Pouraliganji.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said the Portugal captain, who will line up against Uruguay in the next round, should have been sent off in the 1-1 draw.

“I don’t want to talk too much, it’s about my country and a player. I know it’ll be a war against me,” said Queiroz, who coached his native Portugal and Ronaldo at the 2010 finals in South Africa. 

“But the reality is you stopped the game for VAR, there is an elbow,” he added. “An elbow is a red card in the rules. In the rules it doesn’t say if it is (Lionel) Messi or Ronaldo.”

Portugal will face two-time winners Uruguay in Sochi on Saturday.

Argentina, the losing finalists at the last World Cup, find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to rely on the outcome of the other match in Group D after a miserable tournament so far.

The South Americans were held to a draw by tiny Iceland — with Messi missing a penalty — and humbled by Croatia.

The maths is simple: if Argentina beat Nigeria and Iceland fail to win against Group D leaders Croatia, they will go through to the last 16. If Iceland win, it will be time to get the calculators out.

– Argentina pressure –

Argentina’s struggles in Russia come after their pre-tournament preparations were wrecked by controversy and poor form, coupled with a reliance on a top-heavy, limited squad.

The Argentine federation was even forced to confirm that Jorge Sampaoli would continue for the final group game amid rumours of a rift between players and coach.

“We have to make our goal five games to reach the final. Tomorrow will be the first final,” said the defiant coach on the eve of the game.

“No matter who plays tomorrow will have the obligation to give until the last bead of sweat so that Argentina will go through.”

Euro 2016 heroes Iceland can still dream of progress to the knockout rounds but they must beat Croatia and hope the other result goes their way.

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