Croatia Buries Argentina’s World Cup Hopes in a Deep Hole

Croatia’s Luka Modric celebrated after scoring against Argentina on Thursday.

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Surely it couldn’t get worse for Argentina. In its opening World Cup game, against tiny Iceland, a game in which captain and national treasure Lionel Messi missed a penalty, the Argentines were held to a draw.

But on Thursday the 2014 runners-up found that it could indeed get worse. Much worse.

Disappointing against Iceland, Argentina put in a shambolic display against Croatia here in a 3-0 loss that left it on the verge of early elimination. Even if Manager Jorge Sampaoli can somehow solve his misfiring team’s numerous deficiencies and defeat Nigeria in its final Group D game, Argentina will still need other results to go its way to qualify for the knockout phase.

It took just a few minutes of action for the thousands of Argentina fans that streamed down Karl Marx Street and into Nizhny Novgorod Stadium to realize that the weaknesses their team displayed against Iceland were not just first-game jitters, but deep-lying flaws.

From the start, Sampaoli’s rejiggered defense looked liable to make an error — and exactly that happened, in the 53rd minute when goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero gifted Croatia’s Ante Rebic the game’s opening goal. At the other end, Messi, usually such a potent attacking force, looked like a man strolling in a park while a soccer match took place around him. In the first hour, Messi played just 15 passes. By the end of the match, Caballero had made more passes than Messi: 36 to 31.

“After they scored on us, we were emotionally broken,” a chastened Sampaoli said after the match.

Croatia took the lead in bizarre fashion. Caballero, who was also involved in a mix-up that allowed Iceland to score its lone goal in the first game, fluffed a chipped pass, scooping it up straight to Rebic, who thundered a volley into the net from close range to give Croatia a 1-0 lead.

While the goal came off a mistake, Croatia had looked the more threatening side even before Caballero’s aberration. Perhaps more impressive, its defense had shackled Messi almost completely.

Shorn of the ball, locked out of the pockets of space he uses to devastating effect with Barcelona, Messi dropped deeper and deeper in search of possession, until he appeared to give up all hope of influencing the game. He wandered around scratching his head, or pulling on his beard, as blue-and-white-clad teammates floundered around him.

“We quite simply couldn’t pass to him,” said Sampaoli. The Croatian captain, Luka Modric, reveled in that fact, noting his team’s ability to “cut off the supply line” to Messi.

Modric, in contrast, put in a fine individual performance punctuated with an 80th-minute goal that resembled the sort of strike that Messi has made his hallmark. Modric received the ball on the edge of the area, took two touches, then quickly swerved to find just enough space to bend a shot past Cabellero.

The goal all but sealed the result, but there was still time for one more breakdown in the Argentine defense. Messi’s Barcelona teammate Ivan Rakitic, who had earlier struck the bar with a free kick, scored on a tap-in off a pass from Mateo Kovacic just yards from the goal mouth.

The result meant Croatia could begin looking toward the knockout rounds, while the recriminations for Argentina began almost immediately. The comparison between Messi’s struggles and the brio displayed by his great Portuguese rival Cristiano Ronaldo in the tournament have been inevitable — another burden on the shoulders of a player who seemingly carries the hopes of 40 million Argentines on his shoulder.

Ronaldo has four goals from two tournament games. Like Messi, he’s at times expended little energy, playing at walking pace on occasion. But while Messi’s strolls have led him into cul-de-sacs with no exits, Ronaldo’s have been paved with goals. Ronaldo’s beaming smile has contrasted with Messi’s furrowed brows. On Thursday, Messi’s bowed head was first down the tunnel, a speedy exit from the scene.

Sampaoli had described Messi with almost religious-like fervor before the tournament, painting him as a superhuman presence that transcended his peers. Two poor games have failed to dent the devotion, with the coach blaming himself and the rest of the roster for Messi’s difficulties.

“Right now we shouldn’t compare the two players, the reality is the state of the Argentina squad clouds Leo’s brilliance,” he said of Messi and Ronaldo. “Leo is limited because the team isn’t functioning as well as it should be.”

Argentina’s failures in Russia are perhaps not surprising given the turmoil the national team, and the sport in general, has endured in Argentina. The national team is on its third coach since falling just short in Brazil four years ago, and it stumbled through South American qualification before just squeezing its way to Russia. Its national soccer federation, even, is a constant source of drama, requiring an emergency management team appointed by FIFA in 2016 following a series of crisis.

“A table has four legs, and Messi can’t be all four,” said Jorge Cignetti, 59, who was at his third tournament watching his beloved Argentina. “The other legs are all broken.”

The one constant during that time has been the armada of support from the stands, and fans like Cignetti, who traveled from Córdoba. Their hopes of a repeat of the World Cup wins of 1978 and 1986 now all but over, the fans continued to sing the songs that have reverberated across Russia until the very end.

“I am the one responsible,” Sampaoli said, asking for forgiveness. “I was just as dreamy-eyed as any fan, and I’m really hurt by this.”


Here’s how Croatia beat Argentina:

Rakitic puts the finishing touch on this, burying a third goal for Croatia on a counter attack. Caballero saves Rakitic’s first effort, but it falls right to Kovacic, who plays it back to Rakitic for the easy tap-in.

If anyone can score twice in that period of time, it’s Lionel Messi. But probably not the version of Messi we’ve seen in Russia.

Emotions boiling over here, as Otamendi sends a clearance right toward the head of a fallen Rakitic a couple seconds after Rakitic had been brought down. That sparks a scrum and some pushing and shoving from both sides. Otamendi gets a yellow card.

Rakitic nearly gets immediate revenge, sending the ensuing free kick right off the crossbar.

He receives the ball at the top of the penalty area, cuts to his right, and curls a hard shot just inside the right post! Modric was isolated, one-on-one against Otamendi just beyond the 18-yard-line. A quick cut left, then a quick cut right, and he unleashed a shot that Willy Caballero was slow to react to. His dive was well late, and Croatia has a commanding lead.

Andrew Das: Gorgeous.

No pressure, but seems fair to say Messi has about 10 minutes, give or take, left to avoid the likely fate of a lifetime of second-guessing about his performance on the international stage for Argentina.

Rakitic goes down on a collision at midfield and stays down, grasping his stomach, but Argentina tries to take advantage by pushing forward, and the referee lets them play for a moment. Croatian players were furious that the referee let play go on, and Argentina was upset when the official finally blew his whistle to bring on a trainer for Rakitic. Tensions: They’re high!

Acuna puts in a cross but he has no teammates on the receiving end — cut to the sideline, and Sampaoli is furiously urging his players forward, reminding them they have about 18 minutes to get a desperately needed equalizer.

Andrew Das: Everyone’s just mad now. They’re all mad. This is not producing particularly interesting soccer.

24-year-old Paulo Dybala makes his World Cup debut, coming on for Enzo Pérez. That’s the last of Argentina’s subs, having already brought on Pavon and Higuain in the second half.

Andrew Das: That’s the third yellow for Croatia (Rebic, Mandzukic, Vrsalsjko), and with 25 minutes to go they’ll all need to be careful. Dybala comes on for Argentina. He can do more against 10 men. So can Messi.

Meza wastes another golden opportunity for Argentina! Higuain cuts it back from the end line, but Meza’s shot from a few yards out goes straight into the goalkeeper, and Messi can’t get a foot on the rebound.

Argentina has turned up the pressure. They’ve kept the ball in Croatia’s third with some furious dribbling and passing — mostly trying to find Messi — but they haven’t been able to fully break down a very-packed-in Croatia defense.

Rory Smith: I’m no expert, but I wonder if this breathless, frenzied, childlike desperation is the best way for Argentina to get back into this game.

Argentina has sent on Higuain and Pavon in the last bit in a concerted effort to do … something. The strategy is not working.

The Fox broadcast just showed Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli stalking down the sideline like a man who has no idea what to do with himself, followed by a shot of an extremely nervous-looking Argentina supporter in the crowd. Pretty much sums up the mood for a team that had visions of winning this tournament, but now finds itself on the verge of disaster after two games.

A huge error by Argentine goalkeeper Willy Caballero! He absolutely flubs a pass to a defender, popping it straight up for Ante Rebic to volley into the net. Caballero absolutely gifted that one, trying to chip Rebic but making terrible contact. Rebic’s one-time shot was a bit bold, but he buries it in the corner of the net. That’s the sort of thing that can happen when you’re forced to field your second-choice goalkeeper: Sergio Romero, Argentina’s normal starter, was injured before the World Cup.

Andrew Das: That should not have happened. That should never happen.

Modric’s pass sprung Rebic on a break out of the Croatian half, but Mercado snuffs it out at midfield with a cynical tackle that earns him a yellow card.

Andrew Das: Messi making a strong play for Ronaldo’s FIFA World Walking Around Midfield Player of the Year Award.

The second half is underway!

Neither team could claim to have dominated that first half. Croatia had four shots to Argentina’s two, but only one Croatian shot was on target. Argentina had slightly more possession, with 55 percent, but too little of that ball-handling was by Messi. He had a couple vaguely threatening moments — notably when he barely missed a floating toe-poke in front of goal — but was largely absent again. We’ll see if Argentina has a plan to get him more of the ball.

Croatia didn’t want to go into halftime without one more wasted chance. Modric plays a beautiful 30-yard pass to a streaking Rebic, who cuts back across the top of the box and sends the ball into the second deck despite having other options.

It should probably be at least 2-2 here, but these two extremely talented attacking teams have somehow failed to find the back of the net — and it’s not because the goalkeepers have been all that great. Enzo’s miss on an open goal from 16 yards out for Argentina was the worst of the bunch, but Mandzukic also should have scored on his close-range header. Fewer collisions and better finishing would both be welcome developments in the second half.

Andrew Das: Rebic really could have driven in the knife just before halftime there. Maybe he was surprised he was so open behind the Argentina defense — he probably shouldn’t have been, given how the unit has played in this World Cup — but he overran the ball and then rushed his shot. Oops. Quite the sigh of relief for Argentina, which slouches off for halftime lucky not to be trailing.

No ankle is safe on this field. Meza stomps on Vrsaljko’s foot as they both lunge for a ball, and Vrsaljko ends up writhing around on the field for a moment. The referee certainly has his hands full today.

Ante Rebic receives a yellow card for throwing himself into an Argentine player. It’s Rebic’s fourth foul of the game.

Andrew Das: Ankle-breaker from Rebic. That was a nasty foul, and he gets a yellow. But he’s also lucky Sampaoli didn’t get his hands on him; he was hot over there, and the play happened right in front of him.

Messi keeps moving around: he’s on the right, he’s on the left, he’s in the center. That alone is a test for Croatia’s defense, but it probably also keeps teammates from reflexively turning and looking for Messi every time. That could help open things up.

Another miss! Mandzukic, no stranger to big stages, gets a free header about 5 yards out on a beautifully timed cross, but he can’t put it on frame.

How did Argentina miss that?!?! Enzo Perez gets a wide-open shot from the top of the box after a poor clearance by Vida, but his one-timed hit goes wide to the left. Danijel Subasic, the Croatian goalkeeper, had been pulled out of position but Perez still couldn’t take advantage. Argentina will not forget that one if this game doesn’t go their way.

Andrew Das: Oh. My. Goodness. Croatia makes a mess of things and Perez somehow manages to miss the ocean from the beach. That was ..... hard to do.

Aguero wins a corner for Argentina after a nice run down the left side, sending in a cross that’s headed away by Croatia. But Maximiliano Meza sends the corner right into the side netting.

This one’s getting a bit physical. Mario Mandzukic was rushing down the wing until Nicolás Otamendi barreled into him for a foul. Mandzukic stays down for a second and gets some magic spray on his knee before returning.

Andrew Das: Mandzukic’s true position might be agitator, not striker; he has a way of making defenders and goalkeepers uneasy, but also of putting himself in position to force mistakes and then capitalize on them. Nearly worked there, but he clipped Tagliafico, who was happy to hear the whistle save him.

(To be clear, any good striker, including Aguero down the other end, has these qualities.)

Enzo Perez is brought down just outside the Croatia penalty area but there’s no call, but the referee blows his whistle a moment later when Javier Mascherano takes down Luka Modric. The Argentine players are furious, but the referee waves them off with the universal signal for “he definitely dived.”

Andrew Das: Perez dove there for sure, but the referee Irmatov better get control of this game. He can’t have remonstrations and arm-waving after every whistle and every fall. It makes him look timid, and it’ll only get worse.

Argentina gets its best chance so far after a great pass from Messi down the wing, but Eduardo Salvio’s shot from the top of the box is blocked by a sliding Dejan Lovren

Super creative chance for Messi on the lollipop lead ball — isn’t he usually on the sending end of passes like that? — but he can’t get his toe to it. On the bench, nightclub doorman/coach Jorge Samaoli shouts instructions to keep pushing.

Sime Vrsaljko scuffles Croatia’s best chance so far, pulling down a ball near the end line on the right side before sending in a poor cross to Ante Rebic in the middle that Rebic can’t corral.

Something of a methodical start to this one, as both teams look determined to avoid giving up an early goal. Messi gets possession in the Croatian third of the field but he’s immediately shut down by three defenders.

Andrew Das: This isn’t the first rodeo for the referee, Ravshan Irmatov of Uzbekistan; this is his third World Cup. But 10 minutes in he’s already policing toe-stamps and furious arm-waving appeals from both sides. Neither of these teams is shy about making their case for calls loudly and often, so he’s going to have to get this game in order pretty quick.

Croatia gets the first legitimate chance as Ante Rebic finds himself with the ball on the left side of the area, but his shot is pushed away by the Argentine goalkeeper Caballero.

We’re underway in Nizhny Novgorod! Argentina is in its classic blue and white striped kits, and Croatia in black and blue.

Andrew Das: Croatia in anything but the checkerboard feels like a letdown, but that Perisic shot nearly makes everyone forget. That was scarier than Argentina would like.

From Rory Smith: Real Madrid’s Luka Modric is the heartbeat and the brain of this team; if he is on, Croatia will be a threat to beat anyone.

23 Danijel Subašić

2 Sime Vrsaljko

3 Ivan Strinić

4 Ivan Perišić

6 Dejan Lovren

7 Ivan Rakitić

10 Luka Modrić

11 Marcelo Brozović

17 Mario Mandžukić

18 Ante Rebić

21 Domagoj Vida

Three changes for Argentina from their draw against Iceland: Marcos Acuna, Enzo Perez and Gabriel Mercado replace Angel Di Maria, Lucas Biglia and Marcos Rojo.

23 Willy Caballero

2 Gabriel Mercado

3 Nicolas Tagliafico

8 Marcos Acuña

10 Lionel Messi

13 Maximiliano Meza

14 Javier Mascherano

15 Enzo Pérez

17 Nicolas Otamendi

18 Eduardo Salvio

19 Kun Aguero

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