A nightmare performance from Argentina saw Lionel Messi’s dreams of lifting the 2018 FIFA World Cup vanish as Croatia humbled the mighty Albiceleste 3-0 in their Group D game at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Thursday night.
Messi and Co. had only managed a 1-1 draw against lowly Iceland coming into their clash with the group-topping Croats (who had beaten Nigeria 2-0 in their opener) and were under some pressure.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli made the bold call to bench the misfiring Angel Di Maria, yet inexplicably chose not to utilise the mercurial Paulo Dybala and Croatia were definitely the stronger of the sides in the opening exchanges.
Inter MIlan winger Ivan Perisic forced a fine save from Willy Caballero in the fourth minute itself, but Argentina were dangerous too and the South Americans were guilty of a few gaping misses in the first-half itself.
At half-time, it was scoreless and really anybody’s game.
Either a moment of brilliance or a blunder would be the turning point in the tie and Caballero’s gaffe in the 53rd minute definitely fell in the latter category.
Sampaoli’s men had been sloppy in the first-half too, but it seemed they hadn’t learnt their lesson as their custodian’s severely under-hit pass allowed Ante Rebic to fire in a sumptuous volley and from then on, Argentina had the wind taken out of their sails.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic had been impressive in the opening 45 minutes, but they upped the tempo in the second-half and Javier Mascherano and Co were really no match for the La Liga duo.
As the clock ticked, the South Americans grew more desperate and left gaping holes at the back, but somehow Croatia were unable to make the most of the extra space.
It was left to Modtic to seal the deal and his second goal of the tournament was a real golazo, fashioning an inch of space on the edge of the box before firing in a curler past the despairing arms of Caballero in the 80th minute.
The likes of Nicolas Otamendi hadn’t exactly covered themselves in glory so far, but they certainly lost their rag towards the end and the Manchester City man was lucky to stay on the pitch come full-time.
He would have wished he had gone in for an early shower, however, as Rakitic added a third and final nail in the coffin deep in injury-time.
It could have been 4, 5-0 even on another day, such was Croatia’s dominance in the second period but they’ll take the result with open hands as they march into the knockouts.
Nigeria, Iceland and Argentina will now battle it out for the remaining spot and while Sampaoli’s men still have a strong chance of progressing, their confidence will have taken a massive hit and it’s difficult to see them really going far.