Nizhny Novgorod, June 22 (AP/UNB) — Lionel Messi's frustrating international career may be coming to an early and anti-climactic finish after Argentina's worst loss in World Cup group play in 60 years.
With Diego Maradona watching from the stands, the 2014 runners-up were routed by Croatia 3-0 Thursday. The Croats are moving on to the round of 16.
Messi got off only one shot in a defeat that pushed Argentina to the brink of elimination. Messi, who turns 31 on Sunday, has never won a major title with Argentina's senior national team despite of decade of championships with Barcelona and five player of the year awards.
"He is our captain, he leads the team and we quite simply couldn't pass to him," Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said. "We work to give Leo the ball, but the opponent also works hard to prevent him from getting the ball."
Messi also missed a penalty kick in his team's opening 1-1 draw against Iceland.
Argentina, hurt by the poor play of goalkeeper Willy Caballero on Thursday, had not lost by such a large margin in the first round since a 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia in 1958. Caballero gained the starting role because No. 1 keeper Sergio Romero injured his knee last month in the run-up to the tournament.
"We have to swallow the poison," Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano said. "The game says it all."
Argentina, which has not missed making the second round since 2002, has not been eliminated. But the two-time champions need to win their next match against Nigeria on Tuesday, as well as get help from other matches.
Thursday's humiliating loss came in humiliating fashion for one of soccer's most storied nations.
Caballero mangled a clearance and kicked the ball toward Croatia defender Ante Rebic, who one-timed it into the net in the 53rd minute.
Caballero buried his face in his hands while a giant television screen showed Maradona doing the same.
"After they scored on us, we were emotionally broken," Sampaoli said. "I had a lot of hope. I am extremely hurt by this defeat, but I probably didn't understand the match the way I should have."
And it got worse as Argentina crumbled, frustrated by the Croatian defense. Modric scored with a hooking shot in the 80th and Ivan Rakitic added the third in stoppage time.
Croatia frustrated Argentina throughout the match and never gave Messi space to operate.
"Argentina wasn't confused. We were excellent," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said. "We beat a great Argentina with the best player in the world playing, Messi."
Croatia, which reached the 1998 World Cup semifinals but has not advanced past the group stage since then, will face Iceland on Tuesday in Rostov-on-Don.
"Let's keep our feet firmly on the ground and prepare for the next matches," said Modric, the man of the match. "We should be focused on what awaits. Every next game is going to be more difficult, but our main objective has been reached. It looks easy, but it was not that easy."
Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986 — the last with Maradona as the star player — but has not won any major title in 25 years. The Argentines also lost in the last two Copa America finals.
Croatia has advanced with six points from two matches in Group D, while Argentina has only one point and is facing elimination.
Iceland also has one point, and Nigeria has zero. Nigeria and Iceland play on Friday.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Croatia stymied Messi for 90 minutes, not allowing even one shot.
The Croats played with five midfielders and seemed to close down any possible space.
Before the match, Dalic said this was going to be Croatia's "easiest game." He clarified that by saying it would not be an "easy opponent" but it would be a "pressure-free match."
MESSI OR RONALDO?
Sampaoli didn't want to choose when asked if Cristiano Ronaldo was the best player in the world.
"I think Cristiano is a great player. You can look at all he has achieved as a player for his club and his country," Sampaoli said. "Right now we shouldn't compare these two players ... Leo is limited because the team doesn't gel ideally as it should. As coaches we need to realize these things and I am the one who needs to accept that."
St. Petersburg, June 22 (AP/UNB) — Neymar will start for Brazil in a mostly unchanged lineup against Costa Rica on Friday at the World Cup.
Although Brazil coach Tite said Neymar still needs time to reach peak shape, he insisted he is not endangering the striker's health.
"Yes, he will be playing. There's no sacrifice here," Tite said through a translator Thursday. "We want to win but the coach is not going to play around with a player's health, the price would be too high to pay."
Tite was expected to use the same 11 players that were held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland in the team's opening match, but right back Danilo got injured in the team's final training session on Thursday and will be replaced by Fagner.
Neymar limped out of a training session on Tuesday after appearing to hurt his right ankle. But on Wednesday, the Brazilian soccer confederation posted photos and a video of Neymar training with the rest of the squad and said he was fine.
"It's an evolutionary process. You need to speed up the steps," Tite said. "He's already speeded up that process."
The world's most expensive player, who joined Paris Saint-Germain for 222 million euros ($260 million) from Barcelona, only just made it to the World Cup after breaking a toe in his right foot on Feb. 25.
After recovering from surgery, Neymar played in two World Cup warm-up matches and scored in both to take his international tally to 55 goals.
But he lacked sharpness when Brazil opened its World Cup campaign with the draw against Switzerland on Sunday. Although Neymar was fouled 10 times during that match, he was still noticeably below his best.
On Thursday, Tite became angered after he was asked if he had spoken personally with Neymar to encourage him to be more unselfish.
"Absolutely not. The information you got is not true," Tite shouted, his voice rising steeply as he called it a lie. "That didn't happen."
He then said it would be pointless to restrict Neymar's way of playing.
"I'm not going to take his initiative away from him in the last third of the field, take away his genius," Tite said. "The last third of the field is where you have to go to create chances, and I'm not going to take that away from anyone."
Anything but victory could leave Brazil, one of the title favorites in Russia, in a difficult position to advance from the group stage.
Serbia leads Group E with three points after beating Costa Rica 1-0 and next plays Switzerland in Kaliningrad on Friday. Serbia and Brazil then meet on Wednesday in Moscow.
Brazil has no margin for error against Costa Rica, which won its group at the last World Cup and reached the quarterfinals.
"It is a decisive game, of course," said Tite, who sat next to defender Thiago Silva. "You can't run away from that."
Silva will take over as captain from left back Marcelo because Tite is rotating the job. Silva was Brazil's captain four years ago, when he was criticized for breaking down before a penalty shootout in the round of 16.
In Russia, he's urging his teammates to be brave.
"The team is fully aware of what we are going to be facing tomorrow," he said. "They didn't start well but they are ready to recover. The fight is on."
Moscow, June 22 (AP/UNB) — The most decorated team in soccer plays on the same day as the newest stars on the international stage as Brazil and Iceland both hit the pitch Friday in group stage of the World Cup.
Brazil opened Group E play with a 1-1 tie against Switzerland in a disappointing tournament opener for one of the World Cup favorites. Iceland, meanwhile, is soaring after a 1-1 draw with mighty Argentina in its World Cup debut.
Iceland is the smallest nation in field and playing in only its second major tournament. The tiny country became a darling of the soccer world after its improbable run to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship. A win or draw Friday in Group D play would make Iceland the first squad to avoid a loss in its opening two World Cup matches since Senegal in 2002.
But the day begins in St. Petersburg in a match between Brazil and Costa Rica. Questions surround Brazil star Neymar, who limped out of a training session earlier this week.
The Brazilian soccer federation said Thursday that Neymar is just fine and posted photos and a video of him practicing Wednesday with the rest of the squad.
"I trained well, felt comfortable," Neymar said in the video. "The foot is fine."
Brazil officials insist his current issue is not linked to the foot injury that sidelined Neymar for about three months earlier this year. Brazil needs him to deliver after the flat draw against Switzerland. The team is among the top in the world and anything but a victory against Costa Rica would make it harder to advance from the group stage.
Brazil also has a controversy over which player to start in the lone-striker role. Gabriel Jesus started Brazil's opening group game but was substituted out by Roberto Firmino, who was the stronger player and nearly scored a late winner from a header.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, topped its group and reached the World Cup quarterfinals four years ago but is on its heels after a 1-0 loss to Serbia in its first game. Costa Rica doesn't have history on its side: Brazil has won nine out of 10 matches against Costa Rica, with its only loss coming in a 1960 friendly. Costa Rica's only World Cup victory against a team from South America was four years ago against Uruguay.
The first of Friday's three games begins at 3 p.m. (8 a.m. EDT; 1200 GMT).
A look at Friday's other matches:
NIGERIA VS. ICELAND
6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT, 1500 GMT)
Nigeria dropped its first group match 2-0 to Croatia and is considered so far to be one of the underperforming teams of the tournament.
The Nigeria team is the youngest in the World Cup with an average age of just below 26, and although it is the most populous nation in Africa with some 185 million people, the team has never advanced past the round of 16.
The game in Volgograd is so highly anticipated in Iceland that its national post office has announced it will close more than three hours early as most of the country is expected to watch.
The draw against Lionel Messi and Argentina was nearly as big as a victory and has Iceland believing it can advance out of the group. To do so, captain Aron Gunnarsson said, Iceland must forget about the Argentina match.
"We can't dwell on that game now," Gunnarsson said. "If we don't focus on Nigeria and don't get a result there, then that (Argentina) point is no use for anyone."
Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson was the man of the match against Argentina, chiefly for saving a penalty kick by Messi.
"This is a must-win game for Nigeria, and that makes it a little bit psychologically different — they have to win," Iceland coach Heimer Hallgrímsson said. "This group is going to be decided in the last minutes, in the last game. It's going to be down to some margins, a set piece, a goal in extra time. This is how this group is going to be played."
SERBIA VS. SWITZERLAND
9 p.m. (1 p.m. EDT, 1800 GMT)
A 1-0 victory over Costa Rica has Serbia headed into its game against Switzerland eying a spot in the round of 16.
Because Brazil's opener also ended in a draw, Group E is wide open right now and Serbia will play Friday for an outright victory against Switzerland.
"If we do the math and start playing for a draw then it will not be successful," captain Aleksandar Kolarov said. "Of course we want to win."
It was a free kick from Kolarov that put Serbia in solid position in the group, but Switzerland may be as tough a foe as Brazil. Switzerland has lost just one of its last 23 matches — a 2-0 defeat to Portugal in a World Cup qualifier in October.
Switzerland used a strong defense and midfield to stifle Brazil, and midfielder Valon Behrami made the match very difficult for Neymar. Behrami became the first Swiss player to appear at four World Cups when he started against Brazil, but he left that match in the 70th minute with a thigh injury.
It's not clear how healthy he'll be for the match, and he skipped at least one training session this week.
Serbia, meanwhile, is seeking to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 1998, when it was known as Yugoslavia. The team did not make it out of the group stage in 2006 or 2010 and did not qualify for Brazil four years ago.
Sochi, June 20 (AP/UNB) — Brazil is making sure everyone knows Neymar is perfectly fit at the World Cup
A day after he limped out of training and raised further doubts about his physical condition in Russia, the Brazilian soccer federation was quick to tell the world the team's biggest star was just fine.
Brazil had a closed practice session Wednesday, two days before its game against Costa Rica in St. Petersburg, but the federation posted photos and a video of Neymar in action in training with the rest of the squad.
"Brazil practicing and Neymar participating normally in the team's activity," the federation said in a Twitter post.
One of the photos showed the playmaker touching the ball with his injured right ankle.
"Take a look at Neymar practicing in Sochi!" read the post linking to the video which showed the playmaker training without any sign of a limp.
The images showed him exchanging passes and making challenges. In a longer version of the video sent to journalists, Neymar took free kicks.
"Neymar practiced the whole time," the federation later said on its website. "He showed confidence and participated actively during the whole session."
Brazilian media had already been speculating that Brazil could be hiding Neymar's real condition after he couldn't finish practice on Tuesday. He was visibly in pain as he walked from the field accompanied by the team's doctor.
He had been playing keep-away with a few other players when he started showing signs of discomfort, and at one point bent down and grabbed his ankle. He tried to continue playing but a few moments later decided to leave, kicking a ball away with his left foot before limping away.
The federation said he left the session only as a precaution because he had been in pain since the team's 1-1 draw against Switzerland on Sunday, when he was consistently fouled. It had already guaranteed after the match there was nothing wrong with Neymar even though he was limping when he talked to reporters. It had already confirmed he would be available to play against Costa Rica.
According to Brazil, Neymar's ankle problem had nothing to do with the foot injury that sidelined him for about three months earlier this year, prompting concerns about his fitness heading into Russia. Brazil coach Tite said before the tournament started that Neymar wouldn't likely be fully fit until the third match of the group stage.
He was heavily marked and struggled against Switzerland, which fouled him 10 times in the match in Rostov-on-Don.
The draw left Brazil and Switzerland two points behind group leader Serbia, which defeated Costa Rica in its opener. Anything but victory could leave Brazil, one of the main title favorites in Russia, in a difficult position to advance from the group stage.
St. Petersburg, Jun 21 (AP/UNB) — Egypt arrived in Russia with Mohamed Salah and some high expectations.
The team, playing at the World Cup for the first time since 1990, was sure it had the ability to grind out results, even with Salah still recovering from a shoulder injury. But after two matches, the Egyptians were eliminated.
"I always say that behind a player there must be a team," Egypt coach Hector Cuper said after Tuesday's 3-1 loss to Russia. "I feel proud we had a team, but perhaps we weren't decisive enough."
Salah was hurt last month in the Champions League final. He dressed for the opening match, but sat on the bench as Egypt held Uruguay scoreless for 89 minutes.
Eventually, however, Uruguay scored and won.
Salah started the second match against Russia and even scored from the penalty spot, but the host nation also proved to be too much.
Those two losses combined with wins for both Russia and Uruguay over Saudi Arabia confirmed the team's elimination despite one final Group A match on Monday.
Most of the expectation, and pretty much all of the hype, had been placed on the shoulders of the 26-year-old Salah, who scored 44 goals in 51 games for Liverpool and was named Premier League player of the year.
But he clearly lacked match fitness in his World Cup debut, only showing a few glimpses of the speed and marksmanship he has displayed over the last year. Still, he was by far the most dangerous of Egypt's forward trio even if he was missing the kind of service he normally receives at Liverpool.
Cuper said Salah had not undergone the intense training his teammates had in the three weeks prior to the World Cup. He missed warm-up matches against Kuwait, Colombia and Belgium.
Salah apart, Egypt typically gave the ball away too easily, didn't threaten and made defensive blunders that belied the solid reputation of a back four led by West Bromwich Albion defender Ahmed Hegazy.
Egypt's run to the World Cup, and the sensational exploits of Salah in both the shirt of the national team and Liverpool, raised the level of soccer madness back at home recently.
The results in Russia have divided the millions of fans in Egypt who have been captivated by the squad since qualification in October, with one side being harshly critical while others resign themselves to the limitations of the team.
News of the loss to Russia made the front page of every Cairo daily, but the tone varied.
Careful not to allow the result to deepen popular discontent over a recent wave of steep price hikes for fuel, drinking water and electricity, the staunchly pro-government Al-Youm Al-Sabae, or Seventh Day, ran the headline: "You have done us proud."
But the independent Al-Shorouk said the team was "clinically" out of the tournament.
Sports commentators and social media users, whose views are often more reflective of the mood on the streets, blamed Cuper's tactics, his selection of players and a large group of wealthy businessmen, actors and TV personalities who they accuse of distracting the players the day before the game against Russia by staying at the team's hotel in St. Petersburg.
"Who allowed this chaos at the squad's hotel?" said Ibrahim Fayeq, a sports anchor at a private TV channel. "And who convinced these celebrities that their presence was so essential for Egypt to win?"