PARIS. — Four years after narrowly missing out on football’s grandest prize, Argentina superstar Lionel Messi returns for what is likely his last shot at lifting the World Cup.
A turbulent qualifying campaign was rescued by a Messi hat-trick in the thin air of Quito, but there is little margin for error in a challenging group featuring Croatia, Nigeria and tournament debutants Iceland.
Despite an array of world-class talent up front, only Bolivia scored fewer goals than Argentina in South American qualifying and the importance of Messi cannot be overstated.
Jorge Sampaoli’s men won just once in eight qualifiers without him and lost to both Nigeria (4-2) and Spain (6-1) in pre-tournament friendlies with the Barcelona forward sidelined.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic spearhead a Croatian side that finished runners-up in qualifying behind Iceland — the two sides split their head-to-head meetings — before overpowering Greece in the play-offs to seal a fifth finals appearance in six attempts.Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic is the team’s primary goal scoring threat and will have a key role to play if Croatia are to advance beyond the group stage for the first time since finishing third at the 1998 World Cup. After successive failures to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, a youthful Nigeria outfit — featuring the likes of Premier League trio Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi — reinvigorated under the experienced Gernot Rohr, punched their ticket to Russia with a game to spare.Euro 2016 darlings Iceland proved their shock run to the quarter-finals in France was no fluke after topping a qualifying section that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey to become the smallest nation to compete at a World Cup.
Meanwhile, Argentina were inspired by talisman Messi as the Barcelona forward put in a mesmerising performance by scoring a hat-trick in their 4-0 World Cup warm-up win over Haiti on Tuesday.
Javier Mascherano became the most capped player for Argentina – overtaking Javier Zanetti – by making his 143rd appearance. — AFP