YEKATERINBURG, Russia – Lionel Messi is under pressure to deliver when Argentina face Croatia on Thursday after his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo streaked clear at the top of the World Cup goalscoring charts.
The Barcelona forward had a first game to forget, failing to convert a penalty as the two-time world champions drew 1-1 with Iceland in their Group D opener.
In stark contrast, Ronaldo, who last month won his fifth Champions League winner’s medal, now has four goals in Russia and looks a shoo-in to win his sixth world player of the year award.
Elsewhere on Thursday, 1998 champions France can virtually ensure progress from Group C with a win against Peru, while Australia need to bounce back against Denmark after losing to Les Bleus.
Messi’s teammates have rallied around their superstar captain after his disappointing performance against Iceland.
He is bearing the weight of expectations as Argentina seek a first World Cup trophy since 1986, desperate to crown his glittering career with a major international tournament success.
A defeat against the Luka Modric-led Croatians in Nizhny Novgorod could see Argentina, unthinkably, flirting with a first exit at the group stage since 2002.
“We are all with him, he knows that he can count on the support of all of us more than ever,” said Argentina striker Paulo Dybala of Messi.
“We are here to help him every moment, and of course we will be at his side.”
Croatia secured three points in a 2-0 win against Nigeria in their opening game but enter the match under a cloud.
AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home from Russia for reportedly refusing to come on as a substitute, though coach Zlatko Dalic said the AC Milan man had a back injury.
France, who edged past Australia 2-1 courtesy of an Antoine Griezmann penalty and an own goal in their Group C opener, vowed to ramp up the intensity against Peru in Yekaterinburg.
“We took stock of what was done well or not so well and all agree that we will have to increase our physical intensity and improve our attitude in general,” said vice-captain and central defender Raphael Varane.
“Other teams (among the favourites) did not win or even lost. We won, but we know that there are things to improve on. We know what direction we need to go in.”
The defeat to France mean the Socceroos need a win against Christian Eriksen’s Denmark in Samara.
“We know (Eriksen) is a fantastic player and obviously he’s got a huge role to play for them,” said Australia captain Mile Jedinak.
“But we’re not trying to focus on that. We’ll definitely focus on them as whole and as a collective.”
– Russia celebrate –
Russia are celebrating after Wednesday’s results confirmed they have qualified for the knockout round for the first time since the Soviet era along with Uruguay, condemning Mohamed Salah’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia to an early exit.
Morocco will also be leaving Russia after the first round following their defeat to European champions Portugal, who are level with Spain on four points at the top of Group B.
Former England captain David Beckham has tipped England to play Argentina in the World Cup final after a positive start against Tunisia.
“I think obviously my choice would be England to win the competition, but that’s me being biased and passionate about my country,” he said.
And former FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he believes the World Cup should return to England when Europe next gets its turn to host the tournament.
Blatter has arrived in Moscow to attend matches at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin despite being banned from the game for alleged corruption during his 17 years at the head of world football.
Away from the football, Burger King has apologised for an online ad offering burgers to Russian women who get impregnated by football players during the World Cup.
Burger King removed the ad and tried to make amends after a furore erupted on social media and in international media.
“We apologise for our statement. It turned out to be too offensive,” the company said.