Argentina 0-3 Croatia: Lionel Messi and Co on the brink of elimination

Argentina 0-3 Croatia: Lionel Messi and Co on the brink of World Cup group stage elimination after Willy Caballero blunder, Luka Modric piledriver and Ivan Rakitic tap-in send them crashing to defeat

  • Argentina’s hopes of reaching the second round of the World Cup have been left hanging by a thread 
  • Ante Rebic thumped home a volley after a horrendous miskick from Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero
  • Under no pressure, Caballero miscued a clearance into the midfielder’s path and he found the roof of the net
  • Luka Modric then crashed home a powerful drive from 25 yards out to double the lead for the Croats
  • Ivan Rakitic then tapped home from close range as Croatia broke with Argentina chasing the game 
  • AS IT HAPPENED: Relive all the action with Sportsmail’s minute-by-minute coverage of the World Cup clash 
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When the bleak indignity of it all had ended, Lionel Messi was the first man off the pitch.

He walked with his head down, casting just the briefest look behind him to be sure that others were following, because it was nothing less than an embarrassment — a display of tactical and technical ineptitude which leaves Argentina’s presence here in extreme peril and could mark the end of a generation.

Their tournament will be all but over if Iceland defeat Nigeria on Friday, which would leave Argentina needing a monumental win against the Africans next Tuesday.  


Ivan Rakitic confirmed the three points for Croatia with a simple tap-in from only six yards out as Argentina tired late on


Barcelona midfielder Rakitic is joined by Mario Mandzukic in celebrating a big win over group rivals Argentina


Luka Modric lets fly after getting the better of Nicolas Otamendi to double Croatia’s lead against Argentina on the night


Modric’s effort bends inside the post and nestles into the back of the net despite the best efforts of Willy Caballero


Modric celebrates his spectacular strike which found the back of the net and put Argentina on the brink of elimination


The Croatian players surround Luka Modric after he doubled their lead just 10 minutes from time in Nizhny Novogrod


Ante Rebic holds his hands to his ears as he celebrates putting Croatia ahead against Argentina in the second half


Rebic hit a crisp volley on the full into the roof of the net after Willy Caballero miscued a clearance straight into his path


Caballero watches in vain as Rebic’s volley soars over his head and into the roof of the net to put Croatia ahead


The Argentina goalkeeper grimaces after his horrendous mistake left them facing defeat against Croatia in Group D


Caballero holds his head in his hands after gifting Croatia the opening goal and the initiative in Thursday night’s game


Argentina captain Lionel Messi looks furious after seeing his side go behind in farcical circumstances to Croatia


Diego Simeone looks on in disbelief as Argentina crash to their heaviest group stage defeat in 60 years at the World Cup

MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS 

Argentina (3-4-3): Caballero 4; Tagliafico 4, Otamendi 5, Mercado 4.5; Acuna 4, Mascherano 5.5, Perez 6 (Dybala 68), Salvio 6 (Pavon 56); Meza 6, Aguero 5.5 (Higuain 54), Messi 6

Subs not used: Guzman, Ansaldi, Biglia, Fazio, Banega, Di Maria, Rojo, Lo Celso, Armani

Booked: Mercado, Acuna, Otamendi

Manager: Jorge Sampaoli 4 

Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subasic 6.5; Vrsaljko 6, Lovren 7.5, Vida 7, Strinic 6.5; Modric 8, Brozovic 6.5; Rakitic 7.5, Rebic 6 (Kramaric 57, 6), Perisic 7.5 (Kovacic 82, 6); Mandzukic 6.5 (Corluka 90+2)

Subs not used: Livakovic, Jedvaj, Bradaric, Caleta-Car, Badelj, Pjaca, Pivaric, Lovre Kalinic

Goalscorers: Rebic 53, Modric 80, Rakitic 90+1

Booked: Rebic, Mandzukic, Vrsaljko, Corluka

Manager: Zlatko Dalic 7 

Referee: Ravshan Irmatov 6

Attendance: 43,318

Match rating: 8

But the inquisition into Jorge Sampaoli and his tactics will run for years. 

Not since a 6-1 defeat by Czechoslovakia in 1958 have Argentina lost so heavily in the group stage of a World Cup. But never have they suffered embarrassment like this.

There have been existential questions for months about this ageing team being coached by Sampaoli, whose pressing ethos runs against the individualistic nature of the players. 

But no one had foreseen that his reversion to a three-man defence — to stretch play and create space for a clearly angst-ridden Messi — would open vast spaces in the wide areas for their opponents to exploit. 

Or, once the team had gone behind, that the 58-year-old would be so powerless to repair the damage.

‘I’m the coach, I had to devise a plan for this match — had I set things up differently it might have turned out much better,’ said Sampaoli, admitting that his strategy had been built around Messi.

‘After they scored, we kind of lost our way and we were emotionally broken and we didn’t have any football arguments to make to change the course of events.’

He also faced a fierce inquisition from Argentines about his decision to play Willy Cabellero, the Chelsea reserve goalkeeper, rather than Sergio Romero — another decision which backfired catastrophically.  


Argentina talisman Messi is tracked by three Croatian runners as he tries to take the ball upfield early in the game


Argentina and Chelsea goalkeeper Willy Caballero was able to get a hand to the shot and push it behind for a corner kick


Argentine captain Lionel Messi stretches to try and get a boot to the ball as it bounces loose in the penalty area


Croatia’s Sime Vrsaljko attempts to block a shot from Argentina’s Maximiliano Meza during the first half in Nizhny Novgorod


Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic squirms in agony after he was on the receiving end of a foul from Enzo Perez


Argentina players remonstrate with the referee after he blew his whistle for a foul against them during the first period

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT 

Croatia have qualified for the last-16 for the first since the 1998 World Cup.

Iceland face Nigeria on Friday. Victory takes them to four points with a draw putting them on two. 

They then play Croatia in their final group game on Tuesday.

To have any chance of qualification, Argentina need Iceland to lose at least once and must beat Nigeria on Tuesday. 

Their goal difference would mean they need to win big.

The entire strategy had been no more complex than doing everything possible to supply Messi, which sounded an unhealthily one-dimensional approach.

Yet from the start there was a pained look behind the talisman’s eyes, a struggle to raise a smile when he finally emerged and then, unusually for him, closed eyes as he mouthed some private supplication. It did not take long for his worst fears about the team he led to be confirmed. 

The nervous tension bordered on blind panic in the first half-hour, in which Argentina would have conceded twice had Croatia’s finishing not been equally grim.

With Diego Maradona, Sampaoli’s arch critic, helpfully gesticulating up in the stands, the back line was oblivious to the Croatians racing in behind them. 

Mario Mandzukic was alone at the back post when Marcos Acuna allowed Sime Vrsaljko time and space to send a cross from the right which reached him. He closed his eyes and dived to send wide a header which they’d have been remembering for years had the night not turned out so differently. 


Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano argues with the official, Ravshan Irmatov, after being called for a foul on Luka Modric


Enzo Perez slumps to his knees after missing an open goal to put Argentina ahead in the opening stages against Croatia


Minutes later Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic missed a free header at the back post to give the European side the lead


Argentina defender Gabriel Mercado receives medical assistance after being on the wrong side of a collision in the first half


Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli makes a VAR signal with his hands after an over the top challenge from Ante Rebic


Dejan Lovren cannot stop Sergio Aguero getting a shot off at goal but the striker’s effort is easily saved by Danijel Subasic


Croatia goalscorer Ante Rebic leaves the field after picking up an injury shortly after his spectacular second half strike


Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic dives in with a last-ditch block to prevent Lionel Messi from equalising for Argentina


Lionel Messi argues with his Croatian counterparts after the referee stopped play with Argentina in the opposition half


A mass brawl breaks out on the pitch after Nicolas Otamendi kicked the ball into Ivan Rakitic’s head as he lay on the ground


Croatia’s own defence hardly looked indestructible. Enzo Perez was given free sight of goal after Domagoj Vida headed straight into his path and fire wide. But Marcelo Brozovic marshaled Messi out of the game.

‘Messi is our captain,’ lamented Sampaoli. ‘He leads the team and we quite simply couldn’t pass to him to generate the type of situations he tends to be able to generate. We lost that battle.’

The goal, when it eventually came, was a metaphor for the entire pititful performance. Caballero’s own anxiety had revealed itself early on as he played out weakly to an unsuspecting Nicolas Tagliafico, who was nearly charged down by Mandzukic.

But what transpired on 53 minutes was catastrophic. Caballero received a back pass as Croatia pushed up after a long ball and attempted to lift a return pass to Gabriel Mercado. 

He succeeded only in teeing it up for Ante Rebic, who spun and sent back an imperious, dipping volley over the goalkeeper’s head.

Rebic should have been dismissed soon afterwards for a dreadful challenge on Salvio, for which VAR was not called in, and he was substituted because of it.

The breakthrough did bring a fleeting vigour to Argentina’s game. Gonzalo Higuain came on for Sergio Aguero, who had been anonymous, and there was one trademark Messi slalom run down the left side of the Croatian box just beyond the hour.

Paulo Dybala, whose arrival for Perez also provided Messi with a better supply line, began contributing. But Argentina now found themselves up against the dimension which they most palpably lack — a muscular defensive shield. There were many Croatia heroes in this famous victory but Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic were supreme — calm and assured as they held the line.

The game had 10 minutes to run when Modric finished it. Again, there was no defensive cover where the right back should have been and the ball was delivered square for the Real Madrid player, who drifted easily inside and with his second touch arced a shot low to Cabellero’s left.

There was still time for Rakitic to curl a free-kick on to the cross-bar and for Rakitic to race through the space where a South American defence should have been, exchange passes with substitute Mateo Kovacic and tap in a third.

Ecstasy for the victors. An era-defining and era-ending defeat for the vanquished side. 


Lionel Messi looks crestfallen at the end as Argentina are left starting at a group stage exit after their heavy defeat by Croatia


Argentina legend Diego Maradona was in the stands in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday to watch his countrymen in action

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