At 30-years-old, this is the last we are going to see of Lionel Messi in his prime at a World Cup, and this final international swansong, one final attempt at winning the greatest footballing prize to elude him in a glittering career, could be over before it had even begun.
Messi knew what was at stake coming into a crucial Group D showdown with Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod and, aware that Argentina are a nation carried by one man like no other in Russia, he knew it was him who would have to make things happen, as it always is.
The penalty miss against Iceland only intensified the pressure Messi would have put on himself. Yet, while Messi at least tried with all his might in the group opener, firing in 11 shots on the Iceland goal throughout the match, the same cannot be said for his efforts against Croatia.
As Argentina slumped to a 3-0 defeat, leaving their hopes of qualifying for the last 16 hanging by a thread, Messi mustered one blocked effort late in the second half. He has given up, and when you look at what is around him, who can blame him?
For a start, coach Jorge Sampaoli does not even know his best system, never mind his best XI. Famed for his high octane, aggressive style, Sampaoli made some bold selections against a talented Croatia side, and got it badly wrong, rendering one of the best players of all time absolutely useless.
“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Leo’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said after the match. “I’m responsible. I was just as dreamy-eyed as any fan before. So I’m hurt. I did the best job I could and I quite simply did not find a way to give them what they wanted.”
There is some truth in Sampaoli’s confession, too. Reverting to the back three he favours, which is apparently not popular with the players, Argentina were exposed time and again by Croatia, with two wingers, not at home with additional defensive duties, at wing back.
Then, further forward, Sampaoli left out Angel Di Maria, one of the few Argentina players who has shown any level of consistency in the past few seasons, in favour of Enzo Perez, who was not even in the squad until Manuel Lanzini had to withdraw through injury. On the back of an average season back in his native Argentina with River Plate, Perez was out of his depth, with his open-goal miss in the first half a particular low point.
Messi saw it coming. That image of him with his head in his hands pre-match was beamed around the world, as he potentially clamoured for any form of outlet he could turn to.
Sergio Aguero is a shadow of the dynamic player for Argentina that he is for Manchester City. He is not a Luis Suarez, who will pull back for a pass from Messi, before returning it with inch-perfect precision. Aguero wants service, but won’t be returning any favours.
Messi also prefers that lovely clipped pass into the channel for the onrushing Jordi Alba at Barcelona, but that wasn’t an option with Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna so bewildered out of position at wing back.
There was just no way he could get the ball in the positions he can affect games in. Gone are the days of Juan Roman Riquelme’s finesse or Juan Sebastian Veron’s vision, behind Messi in Nizhny was a 34-year-old Javier Mascherano, well past his peak, and a drowning Perez.
Fans around Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth largest city that was closed to foreign visitors throughout the Soviet Union era, were in fine voice pre-match, with Argentina fans being especially boisterous around the city’s famous Kremlin.
They knew they had a job to do themselves in the magnificent Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, built on the area where two major rivers, the Volga and Oka, meet. They knew that this Argentina squad is as bad as it has been for decades.
They literally had to be the 12th man, and with Croatia boasting a myriad of talent themselves, even 12 v 11 in Argentina’s favour still might not have been enough, even with one of the greatest players of all time in their ranks.
To go from so many attempts in the first group game to one against Croatia, even if all else around him was falling apart, shows Messi is a man resigned to his fate. 2014 was his big chance to garner a World Cup crown, to complete the set, 2018 is his last.
And now or never is looking very much like never for Messi. While Cristiano Ronaldo has fired four goals to put Portugal on the brink of qualification, Messi is a man aware that lifting this Argentina incumbent is beyond even him.