Signs bad for Messi’s last chance

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (2nd L) vie with defender Marcos Acuna (C) and midfielder Javier Mascherano (2nd R) during training session at the team’s base camp in Bronnitsy, near Moscow, Wednesday. — AFP

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Lionel Messi’s 31st birthday this weekend is an ominous reminder Russia may be his last World Cup and final chance to emulate fellow Argentine great Diego Maradona in lifting the ultimate prize.

The diminutive Argentine captain known as “La Pulga” (The Flea) has won every club accolade imaginable with Barcelona, but has agonizingly missed out on international trophies both at the World Cup and Copa America.

For many Argentines, that means while he may be the world’s best player currently, Messi has not entered the same pantheon as Maradona “El Pibe” (The Kid) who won the 1986 World Cup.

With Argentina looking dysfunctional and under-performing throughout the qualifiers, Messi’s dream of matching Maradona in Russia always looked a tall order.

But it became harder in the 64th minute of Argentina’s opener when his tame penalty was saved by Iceland’s goalkeeper — watched inevitably by Maradona who had lapped up adoring cries of “Dieeeeego!” beforehand.

Though Maradona, 57, consoled Messi that even he too once missed five consecutive penalties and the 1-1 draw with Iceland was a collective failure, the signs are bad.

Some expect Messi to exit international football after Russia, after his aborted “retirement” in the aftermath of a devastating penalty shootout defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa America where he again missed from the spot.

Messi would love to make amends in their match against Croatia.

But the Croatians go into the game in ebullient mood after a comfortable 2-0 win over Nigeria, and will look to add to the frustrations of Messi.

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has unashamedly turned to midfielder Ivan Rakitic — a teammate of Messi’s at Barcelona — for ideas and tactics to stop him.

“I will use all the information I can,” he said, declaring Rakitic his temporary “assistant” before the game.

“There is no perfect way to stop Lionel Messi ... he is the greatest player in the world. But while one excellent player can make a great result, a great team does the job much better ... We will go into the game a little bit more relaxed than them.”

Those who followed closely Argentina’s shaky qualification for the World Cup were not so shocked by the result against Iceland, and do not expect them to roll over Croatia despite their abundance of individual talent.

For reasons hard to fathom, they have looked ponderous and lacking in creative thrust throughout coach Jorge Sampaoli’s year in charge despite boasting Messi and other big names like Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria.

“We will learn from what happened and we have to have the strength to win the next game,” Sampaoli said after the Iceland defeat, seeking to stir his team into collective greatness.

Nevertheless, it is 32 years since Argentina last won the World Cup and 25 since their last silverware, the Copa America in 1993.

Croatia itself is not short on top-quality players. As well as Rakitic, it also has the talented Luka Modric in midfield, and towering hitman Mario Madzukic up front.

With their strongest squad for years and in pole position in the group, Croatia dream of rivaling the glories of 1998, when they reached the World Cup semifinals and finished third after a 2-1 win over the Netherlands in the playoff.

Another adverse outcome for Argentina may even start to consider the unthinkable — that Argentina could be on its way out at the group stage, mirroring its shock first round exit in 2002.

Sampaoli is reportedly considering several changes for the game, including drafting in young forward Cristian Pavon for Angel Di Maria for more creativity up front.

Similarly in midfield, Paris Saint-Germain’s Giovani Lo Celso could start as Argentina seeks more attacking options, possibly at the expense of Lucas Biglia.

Their jobs would be to supply Messi and goalscorer against Iceland Sergio Aguero with the kind of service on which they would thrive in a potential 3-3-3-1 formation. — Agencies