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Jorge Sampaoli is this World Cup’s biggest loser so far

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The World Cup is all about moments – moments of triumph, moments of heartbreak, moments of relief and weight lifted. On Tuesday night in Saint Petersburg, as Argentina secured a knockout round spot with a thrilling win over Nigeria, one moment stood above them all.

Not Lionel Messi’s first 2018 World Cup strike, a masterpiece of movement and high-speed ball control woven by the world’s most brilliant goal craftsman. Not Marcos Rojo’s winner, a life-changing howitzer launched from the most unlikely right boot.

No, the lasting image was beleaguered Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli heading down the tunnel alone immediately after the final whistle, leaving his players to celebrate the triumph without him on the field.

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His disappearance was beautifully symbolic of his World Cup performance leading the tournament’s most disappointing blue blood (that is, until Germany faceplanted its way to group stage elimination) considering he had hardly bothered to show up in the first place. Argentina is set to take on France in the knockout stage not because of Sampaoli, but in spite of him.

Chile’s 2015 Copa America knight errant has somehow become Argentina’s floundering jester with absurd lineup choices and tactical experiments that would make even Jurgen Klinsmann cock his head in confusion. Sampaoli has proven so clueless at the helm that a group of senior Argentine players even reportedly attempted a full-on coup, desperately pleading with FA chairman Claudio Tapia not for Sampaoli’s dismissal, but simply for control of the starting lineup. That reportedly fell short, but it proved to the world the former Sevilla boss is on an island.

Lionel Messi jumps on the back of Marcos Rojo after the defender scored a late winner against Nigeria to send Argentina through to the knockout round (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images).

The biggest and most glaring issue for Sampaoli’s squad selections have been the midfield, where he has proven utterly lost. In Argentina’s opening game against Iceland, Sampaoli started international veteran Javier Mascherano alongside fellow deep-lying midfielder Lucas Biglia in a central midfield pivot that proved redundant, leaving Lionel Messi on an island further up the field. With Manuel Lanzini injured in the buildup to the tournament, Sampaoli turned to little-known Independente playmaker Maximiliano Meza on the wing opposite perpetual international dud Angel Di Maria, leaving Messi completely isolated with the creative load on his shoulders. Meanwhile, electric Juventus striker Paulo Dybala, passing wizard Ever Banega, and midfield link Giovani Lo Celso were left to contemplate their thoughts among the substitutes. Argentina dominated Iceland in every facet of the game, but, as they have on many occasions throughout the last few years, produced no end product.

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While that result was disappointing, it provided Sampaoli with all the answers he needed to make changes for the better moving forward. 34-year-old Mascherano looked a step behind the play, and partnered with Biglia the midfield was static. Yet the boss failed to draw from the fountain, sprinting in the opposite direction completely. Instead of benching Mascherano (admittedly a bold move to make with a team leader) and introducing Lo Celso and Banega to patch the holes and give Messi some creative help, he threw common sense to the wind with the incomprehensible decision to press Croatia into oblivion.

Not only did Sampaoli’s tactics fail miserably, his team selection proved he learned nothing from the first 90 minutes. He left Mascherano in and paired him with Enzo Perez, another static midfield duo. He sat Di Maria and replaced him with an even more confusing wing pairing of Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna. Instead of withdrawing Max Meza, he pushed him even higher up the pitch in a creative yet undefined role. He started a back three that included full-back Nicolas Tagliafico chosen over Roma standout and natural center-back Federico Fazio, who was ranked by Squawka as the 6th best defender in Serie A this past campaign. The result was a gloriously chaotic mess as Luka Modric carved Argentina to bits on the counter. Here’s the Sparknotes version:

(Dashboard stats from Opta via StatsZone app)

Lionel Messi was completely and utterly wasted. Arguably the world’s best player had one shot on goal, which was blocked. He completed two take-ons in the attacking third. He created two chances. Meanwhile, Croatia sliced Argentina’s midfield to pieces on the counter, as Mascherano again had a miserable showing and the rest of the players were too scattered to make a difference. Willy Caballero made another mistake in goal, and the makeshift back three was torn to shreds.

With Argentina staring down the barrel of group stage elimination, Sampaoli was given a vote of confidence from management and turned in another flop in a do-or-die scenario against Nigeria. The 58-year-old scrapped the back three and deployed Manchester United bruiser Marcos Rojo into central defense, again leaving Fazio on the bench. He organized a flat 4-3-3 with Mascherano behind two central midfielders, which admittedly was better than anything he flung onto the pitch in the previous two games. He gave Ever Banega a deserved start, but Mascherano again made a fool of himself on multiple occasions, complete with blood streaming down his face. He continued to utilize Perez, who put in a laughably useless shift on the wing with 25 of his 32 passes backward or square despite living on the same side as Messi. Di Maria came back into the team and was again invisible. Sampaoli handed perennial punchline Gonzalo Higuain the start up front in favor of the insubordinate Sergio Aguero, and he did what he’s come to do best – send one to the moon in a huge moment down the stretch. All this while Dybala, Lo Celso, and Christian Pavon rotted on the bench, while Mauro Icardi laughed himself silly on the couch at home.

Nobody has seen their stock plummet quite like Jorge Sampaoli this World Cup. In a tournament full of moments – ones on the biggest stage that shape our image of players and coaches more than any others in the game – Sampaoli has managed to dismantle his reputation from Copa America hero to World Cup goat. No, this Argentina team isn’t very good, but it certainly isn’t this grotesque.

Messi ended up on the shoulders of Rojo after the defender’s magical moment against Nigeria, and he hugged every teammate and staff member on the pitch after the final whistle. Truthfully, it should have been the other way around, because the magical maestro has willed his team to the knockout stage despite the repeated failures of his manager, and that truly is a feat worthy of recognition. Jogi Löw certainly made mistakes with Germany en route to their massive failure, but it also felt as if he still possessed a talented roster that simply didn’t gel. Argentina – unlike Germany – is still kicking this summer, but because of the boss; they’re still around in spite of him.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

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Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

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But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.

Which Premier League players will be at World Cup?

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There are 107 players from the Premier League who are going to the 2018 World Cup.

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Manchester City have more players going to the tournament (16) than any other club in the world, while the English national team are the only country in the entire competition to have 100 percent of their players from their domestic league.

Belgium have an incredible 11 of their 23-man squad who play in the Premier League, while Senegal and Brazil have six players each from the PL and Argentina, Denmark and France boast five players each in their final rosters.

Below is a breakdown of the PL players heading to Russia this summer, with players from recently relegated teams in 2017/18 and teams coming up to the PL in 2018/19 included.

Here’s a country-by-country breakdown.


Argentina
Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United)
Marcos Rojo (Manchester United)
Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City)
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Willy Caballero (Chelsea)


Australia
Mat Ryan (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town)


Belgium
Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea)
Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)
Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur)
Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United)
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)
Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion)


Brazil
Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City)
Danilo (Manchester City)
Fernandinho (Manchester City)
Willian (Chelsea)
Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
Ederson (Manchester City)


Colombia
David Opsina (Arsenal)
Jose Izquierdo (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham Hotspur)


Croatia
Dejan Lovren (Liverpool)


Denmark
Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City)
Andreas Christensen (Chelsea)
Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Mathias Jorgensen (Huddersfield Town)
Jonas Lossl (Huddersfield Town)


England
Jack Butland (Stoke City)
Jordan Pickford (Everton)
Nick Pope (Burnley)
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur)
Kyle Walker (Manchester City)
Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
John Stones (Manchester City)
Harry Maguire (Leicester City)
Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur)
Fabian Delph (Manchester City)
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea, on loan at Crystal Palace)
Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
Jesse Lingard (Manchester United)
Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur)
Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Danny Welbeck (Arsenal)
Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)


Egypt
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal)


France
Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur)
Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Olivier Giroud (Chelsea)
N'Golo Kante (Chelsea)
Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City)


Germany
Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)
Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)
Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City)


Iceland
Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton)
Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Burnley)


Japan
Maya Yoshida (Southampton)
Shinji Kagawa (Leicester City)


Korea Republic
Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur)
Ki Sung-Yueng (Swansea City)


Mexico
Javier Hernandez (Mexico)


Morocco
Roman Saiss (Wolverhampton Wanderers)


Nigeria
Wifried Ndidi (Leicester City)
Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City)
Victor Moses (Chelsea)
Alex Iwobi (Arsenal)


Peru
Andre Carrillo (Watford)


Poland
Jan Bednarek (Southampton)
Grzegorz Krychowiak (West Brom, on loan from PSG)
Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)


Portugal
Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
Joao Mario (West Ham United, on loan from Inter Milan)
Cedric Soares (Southampton)
Adrien Silva (Leicester City)


Serbia
Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace)
Nemanja Matic (Manchester United)
Dusan Tadic (Southampton)
Aleksandar Mitrovic (Newcastle United, on loan at Fulham)


Senegal
Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Idrissa Gueye (Everton)
Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham United)
Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City)
Alfred N'Diaye (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Badou Ndiaye (Stoke City)


Spain
David De Gea (Manchester United)
Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
David Silva (Manchester City)


Sweden
Victor Lindelof (Manchester United)
Martin Olsson (Swansea City)
Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Swansea City)


Switzerland
Granit Xhaka (Arsenal)
Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City)


Tunisia
Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City)