Lionel Messi is under pressure to deliver when Argentina face Croatia on Thursday after his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo streaked clear at the top of the World Cup goalscoring charts.
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, Ronaldo, who last month won his fifth Champions League winner’s medal, now has four goals in Russia and looks a shoo-in to win his sixth world player of the year award.
Elsewhere on Thursday, Denmark stayed on course for the last 16 after drawing 1-1 with Australia in the early game of the day.
Christian Eriksen’s half-volley was cancelled out by Mile Jedinak’s VAR-assisted penalty after Yussuf Poulsen’s handball, giving Denmark four points after they beat Peru in their opener.
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.”
France, the 1998 World Cup winners, will ensure progress from Australia’s Group C with a win against Peru later Thursday.
– 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.
France, who edged past Australia 2-1 courtesy of an Antoine Griezmann penalty and an own goal in their Group C opener, vowed to ramp up the intensity against Peru in Yekaterinburg.
“We took stock of what was done well or not so well and all agree that we will have to increase our physical intensity and improve our attitude in general,” said vice-captain and central defender Raphael Varane.
– Russia celebrate –
Russia are celebrating after Wednesday’s results confirmed they have qualified for the knockout round for the first time since the Soviet era along with Uruguay, condemning Mohamed Salah’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia to an early exit.
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,” he 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. – AFP