Argentina’s hopes of progressing from Group D are in major doubt after slumping to a 3-0 defeat to Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod.
Second half strikes from Ante Rebic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic sealed an impressive victory for a Croatian side which outclassed a disjointed Argentinian team.
The hopes of Lionel Messi joining the World Cup pantheon is now looking a long shot as Argentina’s chances of progression have been taken out of their own hands.
The result means Croatia qualify for the round of 16 with a game to spare, whilst it also sees Argentina having their worst start to a World Cup campaign since 1974.
Despite there being a big build up to this match regarding the amount of star quality on show from both sides, it was difficult to find that quality within the first half, as neither team were able to take their chances.
The contest also saw both sides look nervy and at times clueless at the back, as they made a number of needless mistakes which lead to several chances in the final third.
It was Croatia who had the first opportunity after five minutes when Ivan Perisic drilled a shot towards the far post, however goalkeeper Willy Cabellero did brilliantly to get down and tip the ball away for a corner.
Croatia did really well to block off the spaces in between the lines where the likes of Lionel Messi relish the chance to dictate the play.
Argentina’s number 10 found it difficult to get into the game along with strike partner Sergio Aguero, with both players having a combined total of just 27 touches within the first 45 minutes.
More defensive errors lead to two big chances midway through the first period – one for either side – but neither were taken.
Just before the half hour mark, a floated ball down the line towards Marcos Acuna was not dealt with by either Sime Vrsaljko or Dejan Lovern with the ball eventually falling to Enzo Perez who missed a golden chance from ten yards out as he stroked his effort narrowly wide of the post.
Then three minutes later, Mario Mandzukic missed a glorious chance to break the deadlock, as his diving header at the far post was somehow directed wide after Vrsaljko had curled a lovely ball over the top of the disjointed Argentinian backline.
Shortly afterwards, Ante Rebic was lucky to remain on the pitch after he only received a yellow card for a nasty stud-showing tackle to the ankle of Eduardo Salvio.
Rebic then wastefully blazed an effort well over the crossbar in added time, before both sides went into the break goalless.
Problems continued at the back for Argentina and it got worst ten minutes into the second half, especially for Willy Cabellero.
After receiving a short back-pass inside his area, Caballero attempted to dink the ball over Rebic, however that completely backfired as his misplaced return pass allowed the Croatian forward to hook a sweetly struck volley beyond the 36-year-old into an exposed Argentinian goal, giving the Croatians a surprise lead.
The Argentinian support – which performed much better than the team itself – was doing all it could to get behind their nation as Jorge Sampaoli’s men came under immense pressure to salvage a positive result.
The closest Lionel Messi came was a half-chance midway through the second half when a rebounded effort from Maximiliano Meza fell to him, but his snapshot inside the six-yard area was turned behind by goalkeeper Daniel Subasic.
The game became stretched going into the final quarter of an hour which was to Croatia’s advantage as they then managed to double their lead ten minutes from time thanks to a moment of brilliance from Luka Modric.
After receiving the ball centrally in the final third, Modric bamboozled Nicolas Otamendi before curling a spectacular strike from 25-yards out into the bottom left corner.
There were a number of wild challenges from both sides throughout the second half and with little time left, tempers flared momentarily as Otamendi needlessly struck the ball into the head of Rakitic whilst the playmaker was on the floor, which resulted in the defender rightly being cautioned for his actions.
From the resulting free-kick, Rakitic nearly scored Croatia’s third of the evening but his effort from outside the box was kept out by the face of the crossbar.
However the Barcelona man did manage to put his name onto the scoresheet in stoppage time as Croatia counter-attacked to score their third of the match.
Rakitic’s initial shot inside the area was saved by Cabellero but the loose ball was pounced upon by substitute Mateo Kovacic who squared the ball back towards the midfielder who slotted home into an open net, sealing all three points as well as Croatia’s place in the round of 16.
Zlatko Dalic’s side didn’t perform to their absolute best but performed well enough to capitalise on what was a shambolic showing from Argentina.
The South American side went into the tournament as one of the favourites, but even with all the attacking quality they have at their disposal – including arguably one of the greatest of all time in Lionel Messi – their recent performances have shown that they are a long way off from reaching the heights expected from them.
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