Jorge Sampaoli goes back to the drawing board and other Argentina v Croatia tactical battles

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Lionel Messi and Argentina will look to ignite hopes of progression from World Cup 2018’s Group D when they battle Croatia at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Thursday.

Here are the tactical battles:

SAMPAOLI’S SHIFTING SANDS

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There was always going to be a reaction to the Iceland stalemate.

Argentine media have reported a change of shape from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-1-2 formation is imminent.

Angel Di Maria is the biggest-name casualty of this move. The 30-year-old had zero shots and dribbles during an ineffectual 74 minutes.

Veteran defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano’s need for greater legs around him should see River Plate’s Enzo Perez start instead of AC Milan’s Lucas Biglia.

MIDFIELD POSER

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Eyebrows were raised against Nigeria when boss Zlatko Dalic decided to utilise star midfielder Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in front of the defence, a role usually left for Internazionale’s Marcelo Brozovic.

This change didn’t equate to faster ball rotation as Croatia made a stumbling – but ultimately successful – start to World Cup 2018.

Expect Brozovic to come in and keep an eye on Barcelona icon Lionel Messi. Modric will then be tasked with creative work, rather than defensive duties.

DYBALA TO BE DENIED

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A clamour is always present when Juventus forward Paulo Dybala is mentioned.

He remains an alluring figure for La Albiceleste, who are yet to see the best of a potential superstar who struck 22 times in 33 Serie A matches last term.

Sampaoli’s likely decision to play two up top should have presented opportunity. But burned by Dybala’s qualifying record of zero goals in eight games and Boca Juniors forward Cristian Pavon’s burgeoning chemistry with Messi, the former mentioned should remain on the bench.

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Marcos Acuna must rival influence of Ivan Perisic and other Argentina v Croatia key battles

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Lionel Messi and Argentina will look to ignite hopes of progression from World Cup 2018’s Group D when they battle Croatia at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Thursday.

Here are the key battles:

MARCOS ACUNA V IVAN PERISIC

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Head coach Jorge Sampaoli reportedly has a tactical shake-up planned for the clash with Croatia.

A total of four changes have been predicted, plus a move to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Sporting Lisbon winger Marcos Acuna is expected to be a beneficiary of these wide changes.

Acuna’s combined tally of nine goals or assists in the 2017/18 Primeira Liga points to his productivity for the left wing-back role.

In opposition stands one of the best pure wingers in European football. Even at 29, Perisic keeps getting better.

Best-ever statistics of 11 goals and nine assists in Serie A with Internazionale point to his danger.

LIONEL MESSI V LUKA MODRIC

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Superstar figures, who cross the Clasico divide, will be found in the creative hub of both sides.

Barcelona forward Messi missed a penalty in the disappointing 1-1 draw with Croatia. But he registered 11 shots, three key passes, two crosses and eight dribbles.

His past exploits mean if he puts in such numbers against Croatia, goals and assists should follow.

Real Madrid midfielder Modric succeeded where Messi failed and sunk his spot-kick in the 2-0 victory against Nigeria.

He is now expected to be freed from a deep-lying position and be the main support for centre forward Mario Mandzukic.

This should see his average statistics from the previous game rise.

GABRIEL MERCADO V DEJAN LOVREN

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Sampaoli is believed to have seen enough from erratic Manchester United centre-back Marcos Rojo and decided to make a change.

This should see versatile Sevilla defender Mercado move into a back three, alongside Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi and Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico.

A 2017/18 La Liga average of 2.2 tackles per game points to his tenacity.

Lovren is the star name in a Croatia backline that has conceded seven times during the last 10 matches.

The Liverpool defender cuts a dominant figure in the air, with an average of 3.6 aerials won per 2017/18 Premier League game. This compares favourably to Mercado’s 1.6 in La Liga during the same period.

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Liverpool target Hakim Ziyech is superb in defeat in our Morocco ratings after Portugal clash

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Superstar Cristiano Ronaldo became Europe’s record international goalscorer when his early bullet header for Portugal earned a trying 1-0 win against Morocco, who became the first nation eliminated from World Cup 2018.

Ronaldo, 33, rose highest in the fourth minute to nod home Monaco midfielder Joao Moutinho’s inviting centre at Luzhniki Stadium. This was both a leading fourth goal in Russia and 85th effort for his nation in 152 matches – bettering Ferenc Puskas’ tally set for Hungary from 1945-56.

Morocco responded in determined fashion, but could not convert a succession of presentable chances.

Here are our Morocco player ratings:

MOROCCO (4-2-3-1)

Munir Mohamedi – 7: Showed great athleticism to deny Paris Saint-Germain-owned forward Goncalo Guedes in second-half. Otherwise, had a surprisingly quiet afternoon.

Nabil Dirar – 6: Curbed his attacking instincts to allow adventurous right winger Nordin Amrabat to bomb on with impunity. Had the better of Internazionale’s Joao Mario.

Mehdi Benatia – 5: Another erratic performance from the Juventus centre-back. Lucky not to receive a second yellow card for fouling Ronaldo and wasted plenty of chances.

Manuel da Costa – 6: The former Portugal youth international justified his start, after being a late substitute during 1-0 defeat to Iran. Was fired up for this one.

Achraf Hakimi – 7: His performance levels oscillate from match to match. This time, offered the perfect support for man-on-a-mission Hakim Ziyech of Ajax.

Karim El Ahmadi – 7: His partnership with fellow Netherlands-born centre midfielder Mbark Boussoufa is formidable. Provides the brains of the team.

Mbark Boussoufa – 7: A pair of seasons in the Arabian Gulf League at Al Jazira has not dulled his ability. Helped get the better of his opposite numbers in white.

Nordin Amrabat – 7: The protective gear did not last long and he showed no ill effects of the head blow that brought him off against Iran. Thorn in Raphael Guerreiro’s side.

Younes Belhanda – 5: Galatasaray playmaker has had an underwhelming World Cup. Was denied twice in quick succession by goalkeeper Rui Patricio and then hooked.

Hakim Ziyech – 8: The coveted Ajax creator would have scored even higher if the likes of Benatia, Belhanda and Khalid Boutaib had converted his chances.

Khalid Boutaib 4: The glaring weakness for the Atlas Lions is in attack. Yeni Malatyaspor’s Boutaib did little to dispel this notion during his time on the pitch.

SUBS

Ayoub El Kaabi – 5: The raw RS Berkane man dropped out of the XI. Didn’t make much of an impact when thrown on.

Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez – 6: One good chance fell way of the Standard Liege-loanee, but he couldn’t profit.

Faycal Fajr – N/A: The Getafe attacking midfielder couldn’t make an impression in short spell of activity.

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