Nizhny Novgorod, June 20: Argentina head into their second World Cup match against Croatia knowing they are already facing potentially a decisive 90 minutes in their quest for glory.
Jorge Sampaoli's side were held to a 1-1 draw in their opening game by tournament debutants Iceland, with Lionel Messi seeing a crucial penalty saved in that stalemate in Moscow.
The pressure is starting to mount on Messi in particular. He managed 11 shots against Iceland without scoring and has not hit the back of the net at the World Cup with any of his last 21 attempts.
Suggestions of an over-reliance on the Barcelona star have dogged Argentina for many years, but 'Messidependencia' claims have grown louder ever since they were thrashed 6-1 by Spain in a friendly in March while their talisman watched on injured.
Defender Gabriel Mercado says it is time for the rest of the team to stand up and be counted, starting on Thursday in Nizhny Novgorod.
"It's almost impossible not to think about him and not giving him the ball," he told FIFA.com. "But in reality, this is a team game and we have to take the responsibility of our part, to free him up and let him be the one finishing the play."
Croatia lost 1-0 to Argentina in a group game at France '98 but arguably head into this meeting as favourites, having claimed a comfortable opening win over Nigeria.
That said, their preparations have been hampered by the loss of Nikola Kalinic, who has been sent home with an apparent back injury after telling coach Zlatko Dalic he could not come off the bench against Nigeria.
For Luka Modric, the emphasis must be on the unity of the team, as they go in search of a win that could put them in the last 16.
"We played as a team, we were very compact against Nigeria," he said simply. "We have to do the same thing against Argentina."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Argentina – Eduardo Salvio
Nobody covered more ground while in possession against Iceland than 'Toto' Salvio, the Benfica winger converted to right-back under Sampaoli. He is a real weapon down the wing, especially when players are drawn centrally to crowd out Messi, and could be a pivotal supply line to Argentina's centre-forward (most likely Sergio Aguero).
Croatia – Andrej Kramaric
Kramaric played as a number 10 against Nigeria, behind Mario Mandzukic, and it could prove a key position against Argentina if Dalic keeps the same system. Not only will he be important in providing attacking support to the Juventus forward, he will also be needed to add an extra presence in midfield to keep Messi as far from the ball as possible.
KEY OPTA STATS
- This will be the fifth meeting between Argentina and Croatia, with the South Americans winning twice to Croatia's one (D1).
- Croatia have lost all four of their World Cup meetings with South American sides, once in each of the four tournaments they have played in.
- Lionel Messi has scored in each of his two previous appearances against Croatia, including his first ever goal for Argentina (March 2006).
- Croatia have scored in each of their last five World Cup games, their longest such streak in the competition.
- Croatia defender Vedran Corluka has made 99 appearances for his country. If he plays in this game, he will be the second member of their 2018 World Cup squad to earn 100 caps for Croatia (after Luka Modric).
Match kicks off at 11.30 PM IST on Thursday (June 21)
Live on Sony TEN 2 and Sony TEN 2HD