KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Winning the World Cup is not essential for a footballer to be considered one of the all-time greats. Johan Cruyff, Alfredo di Stefano, Stanley Matthews and Ferenc Puskas never won the World Cup.

Unfortunately for Lionel Messi, he has always been weighed down by the expectation of raising the gold trophy in his perceived role of heir to Diego Maradona who was one of the all-time greats and did win the World Cup, back in 1986.

Naturally this is unfair on Barcelona’s Messi, with a staggering 600-plus goals to his credit for club and country over the past 14 years. But his World Cup headlines now are not about ascension to glory but descent into despair after Argentina’s 3-0 beating by Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod in Group D.

Lionel Messi . . . expectation, expectation, expectation

An outpouring of media psycho-babble had erupted after Messi missed a penalty when Argentina opened their campaign last Saturday with a 1-1 draw against the minnow newcomers of Iceland.

Did Argentina depend too much on Messi? Or did they not know how to capitalise on his talent? Or did his genius intimidate his team-mates even more than the opposition? The world game expected answers in Nizhny Novgorod but certainly not the ones which emerged.

Team changes

Coach Jorge Sampaoli set off in search of solutions by undertaking three changes, including the omission of experienced Angel De Maria, and some tactical and positional adjustments.

Croatia were quicker out of the blocks and goalkeeper Willy Caballero was grateful to reach his fingertips to an angled shot from Ivan Perisic after only four minutes. At the other end Argentina’s Marcos Acuna saw a left-wing cross clip the top of the Croatia crossbar.

Messi occupied a position much further forward than in the first game against a Croatia side who almost proved their own worst enemies. Confusion between Dejan Lovren and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic on the halfhour should have proved fatal but Enzo Perez jabbed wide of an open goal. At the other end Mario Mandzukic sent a diving header wastefully wide.

At halftime – with Messi having drifted along, waiting for the right moment which never came – the game remained goalless.

On the resumption Messi sparked a move which ended in Sergio Aguero shooting tamely into the hands of Subasic as Argentina relaxed briefly but fatally. Croatia lobbed the ball too long for Ante Rebic to reach but Caballero miscued his clearance kick and Rebic volleyed it perfectly back into the net.

If ever there was a time for Messi to come to the rescue then this was it. One attempt to wriggle into the penalty box was blocked, a close-range offering was cleared off his toes for a corner and a combination with newly-arrived Paolo Dybala came to nothing.

Ten minutes from time Croatia captain Luka Modric struck a second goal, superbly, from just outside the penalty box.

Worse was to come for Messi and his men. Ivan Rakitic hit the bar with an 86th minute free kick and then walked No3 into the net four minutes later.

Messi and Argentina are still alive in the World Cup. But only mathematically and only just.

Croatia are already in the knockout stage.