Croatia inflicted a brutal 3-0 World Cup defeat on Argentina which will damage the two-time champions’ psyche, and may prove fatal to their participation at this tournament.
The result means that an Iceland win over Nigeria on Friday and a convenient draw between Croatia and Iceland in their final game would see Argentina eliminated
Lionel Messi had no answer after a goalkeeping howler from Chelsea’s Willy Caballero gave Croatia a 53rd minute lead in Nizhny Novgorod before Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic compounded Argentina’s misery.
In an error-strewn game it was Caballero’s mistake in the 53rd minute which broke the deadlock. The goalkeeper attempted a lob over the head of Ante Rebic, enormously undercooked it and Rebic volleyed the ball home beautifully.
Modric made it 2-0 in the 81st minute, jinking round his marker and unleashing a beautiful curling shot.
Rakitic hit the bar from a free kick five minutes later before rolling into an unguarded net in second half stoppage time to complete the rout.
A Willy Caballero howler opened the floodgates for Croatia.
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.
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.
Diaster struck for Argentina when Cabellero, trying to play the ball out of the back, 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.
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.