All eyes were on Lionel Messi and Argentina to see how they would bounce back from a disappointing draw vs. Iceland to open their World Cup. Well, it got worse.
A Willy Caballero howler opened the floodgates for Croatia, which dispatched Argentina with ease 3-0 after a dominant second half. Ante Rebic capitalized on the goalkeeper’s mistake with a fabulous volley, while Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic followed with late goals to secure Croatia’s place in the knockout stage. Argentina is still alive, but barely. It’ll need a win over Nigeria and some help, the extent of which will be known after Iceland plays Nigeria on Friday.
The match was an open and physical one, and Caballero was forced into an early save by Ivan Perisic, who was played into acres of space down the left-hand side. Perisic took the angled shot, and Cabellero got down to dive and push it wide of the far post in the fifth minute.
Messi came inches from his first chance on goal in the 12th minute. He ran onto a ball chipped over the top and outstretched his leg six yards from goal, but he could barely make contact, coming up just short as the ball bounced into the waiting arms of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
Moments later, Sergio Aguero appeared to have a clear look in the center of the box after a cross, but a pair of sliding defenders–Dejan Lovren and Sime Vrsaljko–came up with the heroic block to prevent his chance from getting on frame.
Argentina missed a golden opportunity at the half-hour mark. A freak deflection with the goalkeeper out of position gifted Enzo Perez a clean look at goal from 12 yards out, but he shanked the chance, putting it wide left of a vacant net, much to Argentina’s dismay.
It was Croatia’s turn to miss next, as on the other end of the field, Mario Mandzukic wasted a golden chance. He timed his run to the near post to perfection, as Vrsaljko curled in a cross from the right, but the Juventus forward failed to connect on the header, steering it wide of the post despite having an apparent clear look at goal.
Outside of the missed chances, the match was marked by physical play. Croatia registered 12 fouls on its own in the first half, whle Argentina had half a dozen, and a pair of incidents were briefly reviewed by VAR to see if they were deemed red-card worthy. The choppy nature and Croatia’s approach neutralized Messi’s influence over the opening 45, with the under-pressure star not much of a factor at all.
Argentina finally worked together to whip a shot in through Aguero, who received a pass from Nicolas Tagliafico inside the box on the left-hand side only to fire directly at Subasic.
On the other end, diaster struck for Argentina. With Cabellero trying to play the ball out of the back, he took a horrible touch, flicking the ball straight up in the air for Rebic. The Croatia forward showed exquisite technique to fire volley into an empty net, giving Croatia a 1-0 lead in the 52nd minute.
Argentina nearly equalized in the 64th minute. With Gonzalo Higuain and Cristian Pavon brought in off the bench, the former cut back a cross to the top of the six-yard box, where Maxi Meza turned it on frame, only to have it saved by Subasic. The rebound sat tantalizingly for Messi by the post for a moment before it was put out for a corner, which Argentina squandered.
Modric delivered the dagger to Argentina in the 80th minute. Given plenty of time and space some 25 yards out, the Real Madrid star lined up a right-footed rocket, and he hit all of it, beating Caballero to make it 2-0.
Rakitic almost made it 3-0 in the 86th minute. After tempers flared when Nicolas Otamendi booted a ball into Rakitic’s face while he was on the ground after a foul, the Barcelona midfielder shook the crossbar with his set-piece blast.
Croatia capped the rout on the counter in stoppage time, with Argentina pushing numbers forward looking to score. Rakitic had a low shot whipped in and saved by Caballero, but he gifted a rebound, and Marcelo Brozovic centered for an unmarked Rakitic, who fired home into an empty net while Argentina defenders stopped playing, looking for an offside flag.
Here were the lineups for both teams:
Here are the rosters for both sides:
Goalkeepers: Franco Armani (River Plate), Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres)
Defenders: Marcos Acuña (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Federico Fazio (Roma), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax)
Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di Maria (PSG), Giovani Lo Celso (PSG), Enzo Perez (River Plate), Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica)
Forwards: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus)
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli
Goalkeepers: Lovre Kalinic (Dinamo Zagreb), Dominik Livakovic (Gent), Danijel Subasic (Monaco)
Defenders: Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg); Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Strinic (AC Milan), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Sime Vrsajlko (Atletico Madrid)
Midfielders: Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)
Forwards: Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Ante Rebic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Manager: Zlatko Dalic