Bad news for Messi, Argentina as Croatia threatens rotation

Croatia's Dejan Lovren, left, and Argentina's Cristian Pavon fight for the ball during the group D match between Argentina and Croatia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Nizhny Novgorod Stadium in Novgorod, Russia, Thursday, June 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

ROSCHINO, Russia (AP) They are hardly the words Lionel Messi and Argentina wanted to hear with their World Cup future hanging in the balance.

Dejan Lovren raised the likelihood of Croatia resting players for its last group game against Iceland, as much to protect the six who are threatened by suspension via an accumulation of yellow cards than to rest anyone ahead the knockout stage.

That is bad news for Argentina, which needs to beat Nigeria in St. Petersburg and hope that Croatia avoids a loss against Iceland in Rostov in games that are being played simultaneously. Croatia is already guaranteed a place in the last 16 after two wins, while Argentina and Iceland are tied on one point.

”I fully understand Argentina’s concerns and their wish for us to play a full team for the next game as well,” Lovren said through a translator Sunday at Croatia’s training base in Roschino, outside St. Petersburg.

”But we must also think about the fact that we should not be playing the players who have yellow cards. That’s also our concern we need to keep in mind. The head coach is the one who will make the final decision. All of our players are ready.”

Ivan Rakitic, Ante Rebic, Sime Vrsaljko, Mario Mandzukic, Marcelo Brozovic and Vedran Corluka are the six Croatia players who are one booking away from being suspended for the last 16. And with the Croats heavy favorites to top the group, coach Zlatko Dalic could yet play a virtual reserve side against Iceland. Players who have received one caution have it erased after the group stage. A second yellow card in the group stages means a suspension.

Having beaten Argentina 3-0 on Thursday to cause one of the biggest tremors so far at this World Cup, Croatia would be dealing another hammer blow to Argentina’s ambitions.

Croatia’s first-choice lineup is full of stars playing at Europe’s top clubs, such as Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), but the back-ups have had little exposure at major tournaments.

”No matter who is playing,” second-choice goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic, who could get a start ahead of Danijel Subasic, said, ”no matter who is in the first XI or not, we will try to continue and get three points.”

With back-to-back wins, five goals scored and none conceded, Croatia has been one of the most impressive teams in Russia – so much so that some are starting to talk of Dalic’s side as an unlikely world champion.

Especially with the likes of Argentina, Brazil and Germany heading into their last group games still not sure of advancing.

”Of course it has been a surprising tournament and there are no favorites right now, or no teams that are likely to be easy winners,” Lovren said. ”We must, of course, respect teams like Germany, Brazil, Spain and�Belgium, who are all incredible teams.

”Right now, no one is showing on the pitch that they are far superior than any other team. Right now, Croatia is a dark horse, a bit of an underdog.”

And no team with a central midfield of Modric and Rakitic can ever be discounted. Lovren even suggested Modric would be a contender for the world’s best player of the year award if he played for one of the supposed powers of international football.

”Modric would probably be getting more attention than he is right now if he was a German or Spanish player,” the center back said. ”He would maybe even be a Ballon d’Or winner.

”Because we are a smaller country, he does get less attention than he deserves. We are all football lovers and we know Modric is an incredible player. He is one of the best in the world right now.”

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80