Dark Horse Croatia shook up Group D with a 3-0 victory over Lionel Messi and Argentina.
It is no secret that the weight of an entire nation lies on the shoulders of one man.
Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, entered the match with Group D leaders Croatia on the heels of a missed penalty in a disappointing opening draw with Iceland, and in dire need of a goal and win for his national team.
Croatia, on the other hand, was in good spirits and flying high.
A win against Nigeria in Croatia’s opening game saw them move to the top of Group D, and world class midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic looked to continue their solid form against FIFA’s fifth-ranked team.
Thus the stage was set for the biggest match of the group, and the game hardly failed to disappoint.
Croatia began the game by exploiting the space on the outside of Argentina’s three center backs, with the South American side choosing to start with a back three, leaving the team vulnerable after dispossessions in the midfield.
And, sure enough, just four minutes in, that was exactly what happened.
Croatia’s Ivan Perisic boomed down the left-hand side for Croatia, before firing a low shot that Argentina keeper Willy Caballero did well to push wide.
Argentina had, perhaps, the next best opportunity through the opening quarter, when Messi sprung Eduardo Salvio down the right-hand side.
Salvio, the S.L. Benfica winger, crossed a dangerous, low-bearing ball into the box, and Maximiliano Meza nearly slotted Argentina in front had it not been for a brilliant block from Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren.
Croatia continued to find success down their own right flank, as Ante Rebic looked dangerous a number of times in the opening quarter of the game against Argentina defender Nicolas Tagliafico.
Lovren nearly turned villain from hero in the 30th minute, when he was muscled off a hopeful ball by Argentine striker Sergio Aguero.
Aguero’s ensuing shot was blocked from just outside the six-yard box, and the ball rebounded to midfielder Enzo Perez at the top of the box. Perez, looking at a wide open net, pulled his shot wide.
Croatia almost capitalized on Perez’s missed opportunity three minutes later, but Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic produced a shocking miss of his own.
Mandzukic’s late run was picked out by teammate Sime Vrsaljko at the back post, but he failed to make contact and put the open header past Caballero.
Aguero nearly broke through the Croatian defense before the half, but a well-timed sliding tackle from Vrsaljko kept the forward from breaking the deadlock.
Minutes later, Croatia nearly went ahead when Modric picked out Rebic with a splitting through ball. Rebic cut back and fired a shot just over the bar, electing to go for goal rather than slide a pass to his open teammate Perisic, who was floating inside the box.
Much like the first, the second half began in rather dull fashion. But Croatia soon found the break though, albeit in unconventional fashion.
Caballero received a back pass from defender Nicolas Otamendi, but instead of putting his foot through it and sending the ball downfield, the Argentine keeper opted to attempt to chip over the head of a loosely pressing Rebic.
It was a dreadful mistake, as the ball floated right to the winger, who buried the uncontested volley past a diving Caballero. Yes, it was a fantastic bit of technique and composure from Rebic, but questions must be asked about the decision from Caballero.
Argentina seemingly kicked into another gear, as a 64th minute through ball sent substitute Gonzalo Higuain clear to the byline. Higuain squared for Meza, but Croatian keeper Danijel Subašić did well to save the low shot.
Croatia nearly doubled its lead in the 66th minute when Rakitic lofted a brilliant switch for Perisic, who crossed low to Mandzukic. Mandzukic fired the first-time effort just wide in what amounted to another missed chance.
Argentine substitute Paulo Dybala got his first taste of action in the 72nd minute, but fired well-over from inside the box.
Then, eight minutes later, Croatia provided the dagger through a wonder strike from Modric.
Modric picked up the ball about 25 yards out from Argentina’s goal. He then created a half-yard of space, before unleashing a rocket past Caballero that iced the game for the Eastern European side.
But the real icing on the cake came for Croatia when Rakitic spearheaded a counter attack forward and forced a save from Caballero, with the rebound falling to substitute Mateo Kovacic.
Kovacic calmly floored Caballero with a fake shot before squaring back to Rakitic for the tap-in.
In my opinion, the 3-0 scoreline showed two things.
First, this Croatian team is for real, as the Croatians dominated the midfield to clinch a spot in the Knockout Rounds. Modric and Rakitic were outstanding once again, with the pairing of Lovren and Domagoj Vida shutting down a star-studded attack.
Tactically, Croatia looked like a team with a clear plan in attack, too.
Second, Argentina are in trouble. Deep, deep trouble. And the blame will go many ways after this game, as it deservingly should.
Messi ghosted throughout the pitch for 90 minutes, while Caballero is a disaster in net. And the defense? Somehow it was the best part of manager Jorge Sampaoli‘s team that looks hapless tactically.
Another thing is also clear: all eyes will be on Iceland vs. Nigeria tomorrow, as a victory for Iceland would all but eliminate Argentina from the tournament.
My Man of the Match
Rakitic was everywhere today, and the FC Barcelona midfielder finally got his deserved goal to cap off the win.
Before that, however, Rakitic was an expert in spurring almost every one of Croatia’s attacks alongside fellow MOTM candidate Luka Modric. His ability to spread the play and control the tempo was on full display this game, not to mention he was incredibly strong in defense against Messi and Co.
Full Time Stats:
Argentina 10 — Shots — 14 Croatia
Argentina 57% — Possession — 43% Croatia
Argentina 16 — Fouls — 22 Croatia
Argentina 3 — Yellow Cards — 4 Croatia
Argentina 0 — Red Cards — 0 Croatia