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The image of a disenchanted Lionel Messi entering the locker room directly after Argentina was defeated 3-0 by Croatia on Thursday night in Nizhny Novgorod is already one of the most emblematic of the 2018 World Cup.
In two games, the five times best player of the year could not score a single goal or give an assist. In fact, he missed a penalty in the opening game against Iceland.
The South American team could not pass the group stage for the first time since the tournament in Korea and Japan 2002. It depends on Iceland not winning any of the two remaining games.
It would also be the first time that Messi does not reach the second round since participating in World Cups.
At 31, Messi has, in theory, rope for at least one more World Cup.
Nevertheless. For many experts, Russia 2018 was his last chance to arrive in a position to win a major title with Argentina.
The only award of the Argentine captain with the albiceleste until now is the gold medal of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 .
Neither has been a great season for him at Barcelona: despite winning a double (La Liga and Copa del Rey).
In the Champions League they were eliminated in the quarterfinals for the third consecutive season while watching the arch-rivals of Real Madrid dominate the continent.
There are several factors that could explain why Messi maintains this mediocre performance and suffers in the World Cup.
We list them below:
1 . He is physically exhausted
In the European season 2017/18, Messi played 54 matches, his biggest number since 2014/15 and one of the highest in the last five years.
According to the statistics site Transfermarkt, he played 4,468 minutes and spent an average of 82 , 7 minutes on the field per game .
He finished the season with 45 goals and 18 assists for Barcelona
2 .An annoying injury
In April 2018, the Argentine newspaper Clarín quoted sources of the national team to say that Messi was struggling with a thigh injury in his right leg that was affecting his ability to accelerate and change pace.
The problems were made public after the Argentine withdrew from important friendlies of the national team against Italy and Spain.
In the latter he could only see his teammates lose 6-1 to the Spaniards.
3. Argentina may not be as good
Argentina had a terrible campaign in the South American qualifiers for Russia 2018 and secured a place in the World Cup thanks to a combination of results.
Messi was Argentina’s top scorer in the competition, with seven goals, but that did not stop the fans and the media from criticizing the team’s performances.
For that reason the relation of the soccer players of the selection with the press is broken.
Although they reached the final of the last World Cup, which they lost to Germany by a single goal in overtime, Argentina’s last great victory in the competition took place in 1986. It was the team led by Diego Maradona.
Since the 1993 Copa América they have not won a relevant trophy.
The consecutive Olympic titles of 2004 and 2008 did not mitigate the hunger for great triumphs of the Argentinian soccer community.
4 . Ronaldo in the head
Messi not only has to deal with his problems but with the sensational performance of the man who is considered his greatest rival; Cristiano Ronaldo.
The comparison between both, for better or for worse, lasts a decade or so.
Cristiano Ronaldo shone in his debut in Russia, with a hat-trick against Spain. The last goal was a free kick that will be remembered for years .
He continued with the solitary goal that gave Portugal the victory against Morocco: a header that looked like a bullet.
Ronaldo has been a key factor in the march of Portugal, seems unstoppable until now, in a tournament where the only memorable moment of Messi was the failure of his penalty against Iceland.
And two years ago, Ronaldo did what Messi could not do : he led his team to international glory at Euro 2016.
Ronaldo was dazzling throughout the match, but in the final he was injured in the 22nd minute.
From that moment he became a kind of player-coach, standing on the edge of the court and leading the team with the technical director reduced to a shadow that growled behind.
Messi runs the risk of becoming a spectator too, but without an injury that serves as an excuse.