Diego Maradona cries for Argentina as media turns on beaten team

(CNN) – As the commemorative features acknowledging the 32nd anniversary of the “Hand of God” went to press, Diego Maradona once again raised his left arm, only this time to wipe away the tears.

Argentina had been utterly humbled 3-0 by Croatia on the Nizhny Novgorod pitch before his eyes and suddenly the threat of a group-stage exit for the two-time World Cup champions looked very real indeed.

Manager Jorge Sampaoli paced furiously up and down the touchline. Lionel Messi, head in his hands, stood completely still. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

After a draw against debutants Iceland, the pre-tournament contenders are now reliant on a victory against Nigeria next week with other results going their way, just to qualify for the second round.

Not since 1974 had Argentina failed to win both opening games; not since falling 6-1 to Czechoslovakia in 1958 had La Albiceleste suffered such a heavy group stage defeat.

Croatia, by contrast, is through to the World Cup round of 16 for the first time since 1998.

Sampaoli was reduced to begging fans for their “forgiveness” after the match, claiming “full responsibility” and acknowledging his players were “emotionally broken.”

The former Chile coach went on to say he was similarly “very hurt” and at odds to explain why his players “quite simply couldn’t” find it in themselves to work the ball to Messi, who only touched the ball 49 times during the match.

“Messi is our captain, he leads the team and we quite simply couldn’t pass to him to help him generate the situations he is used to,” said Sampaoli. “We worked to give him the ball but the opponent also worked hard to prevent him from getting the ball. We lost that battle.”

READ: Argentina on the brink of early World Cup elimination after defeat by Croatia

‘A deep disease’

Messi, who is Argentina’s all-time top scorer, now hasn’t found the net for six consecutive matches (647 minutes) at World Cup tournaments — a run stretching back to the 2014 group stages.

Back in Argentina, it was Messi and Sampaoli that were the scapegoats.

Clarín, the largest newspaper in Argentina, branded the team’s talismanic captain no more than “a shadow” in defeat and wrote that he seemed to have “a dagger in his soul.”

One presenter on Crónica TV reportedly begged the question: “Is Messi better on the Playstation than in real life?”

La Nacion reserved their criticism for Sampaoli, arguing the team was without “spirit and guidance” and in the midst of a “deep disease.”

Legendary midfielder Osvaldo Ardiles branded it the “worst squad in Argentina’s history,” calling Sampaoli “arrogant” and “ignorant.”

“Even having the best player in the world, he was not able to make a competitive team,” tweeted the 1978 World Cup winner.

“Sampaoli’s Plan A: Give the ball to Messi and wait for a miracle. If Plan A doesn’t work, Plan B. Errr. There is no plan B. Much less Plan C or D.”

Ardiles went on to say that the “prestige” earned by lifting the trophy on two occasions had been “thrown overboard,” calling on the more experienced players to apologize.

Only one man was exempt from criticism: Messi.

“All the Argentine decline of recent years was disguised by this incomparable genius [and] we are fortunate that he was born in Argentina,” wrote Ardiles. “But even him it was too much at the end of the day.”

Daily sports paper Olé called the team, which has lost three consecutive major finals, “Knights of Anguish” — a pun on goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s surname. Caballero’s awful error gifted Croatia their first goal and Argentina never recovered.

READ: How Diego Maradona redefined football in five minutes

Blame game

The press conference’s opening question had set the tone — a member of the media telling Sampaoli “40 million Argentines” hold him responsible for selecting Caballero, who only made his debut earlier this year at the age of 36 when usual No. 1 Sergio Romero injured his knee.

“I am the one who needs to make the final decision,” said Sampaoli. “Defeat is my responsibility because I am the coach.

“Had I set things out differently, things may have turned out better. I don’t think it is right to put the burden on Caballero.”

Instead Sampaoli seemed to blame Argentina’s abject performance on the shortcomings of the squad as a whole, hinting at a gulf in quality between Messi and his teammates.

“I think Cristiano is a great player but right now we shouldn’t compare these two players,” said the head coach, when asked to compare the contributions of Portugal’s Ronaldo and Messi at Russia 2018 so far. “The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Leo’s brilliance.”

Those comments didn’t go down well with Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, the nation’s only player to find the back of the net so far this tournament, but who was substituted after Croatia’s first goal.

Informed of Sampaoli’s comments by members of the media after the game, Aguero tersely replied: “Let him say what he wants” before storming off.

Rumors of discontent within the camp are already circulating in the Argentine media but for now the players must do their talking on the pitch.

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As Clarín put it, “now to beat Nigeria and pray.”