Croatia keep Messi quiet and watch Argentina fall apart

Croatia tear Argentina to pieces and leave them facing early group stage exit

 

Argentina 0 Croatia 3

Argentina is sometimes called the country of the couch because they visit their psychotherapists the way Celtic nations head down to the pub. The phones in Buenos Aires are going to be busy for appointments this weekend.

This night on the Volga will be remembered for Wilfredo Caballero’s catastrophic blunder in goal. But in truth, Argentina’s collective collapse had begun before that and it had to do with their being haunted by the expectations as much as the Croatian craft. All that Zlato Dalic’s men had to do was to keep Lionel Messi under lock and key and then wait for the South Americans to fall apart. That’s what happened.

It was a strange evening; a concoction of wild and often cynical challenges from both sides, a clean delight of a goal by Luka Modric but most of all the deepening mood of Argentine despair in the stadium. You could see it in the shocked expressions of the fans in the stands, in the erratic behaviour of Jorge Sampaoli on the side line and most of all in the pronounced air of dejection through which Messi carried himself through this prolonged nightmare. Argentina were a shambles. Their interest in Russia is hanging by a thread now.

Lionel Messi during the Group D defeat to Croatia. Photograph: Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images
Lionel Messi during the Group D defeat to Croatia. Photograph: Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images

“Argentina wasn’t confused. We were excellent,” Zlato Dalic countered afterwards.

“We beat a great Argentina with the best player in the world and played a fantastic match. But we have to be calm, humble and dignified. Nobody is happier than I am but I have to be calm.”

The first half passed by in a fog of heavy tackling and increasing Argentine anxiety. They don’t monitor the kilometres but it seemed likely that Jorge Sampaoli clocked greater numbers than Messi as he paced the small square, agitated, invoking the gods, desperate for a break.

A huge Argentine support descended on Nizhny over the past few days and they were in full voice in the minutes before kick off. But it didn’t take long for the anxiousness that crept into their opening game performance to return here.

Croatia spent Wednesday evening gushing about what a pleasure it would be to play against Messi and, as expected, set out their stall to make sure he didn’t. With Argentina in possession, the Croats fell into a compact shape and Messi had Marcelo Brozovic nipping at his heels anytime he moved.

There were long periods of time when he didn’t really move at all, standing in the middle of the field as a forlorn child only there because his father made him. Not that he could be blamed. Argentina didn’t have the wit or width to find him in any space. Without him, they were blunted: Marcos Acuna shaved the crossbar with what was a bad cross rather than a good shot.

And at the other end, Argentina looked calamitous at times, with Nicolas Otamendi fresh-airing an attempted clearance, Nicolas Tagliafico almost giving the ball away in front of goal and the back three completely losing Mario Mandzukic for the clear cut chance of the half. By then, the stadium had become muted and fretful. The foreboding was justified.

Luka Modric celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images
Luka Modric celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

“At half time I told our players that we will create chances but that we had to press higher. We knew the last three for Argentina were a bit...weaker,” Dalic said diplomatically.

“In the first thirty minutes we didn’t do that. I think the tactics were down tight. We had good scouts - we knew they would play 1-3-4-3 and we committed to that.”

It took just six minutes after the restart for the pressure to pay. Caballero’s hashed pass to Gabriel Mercado left the ball sitting perfectly for the industrious Ante Rebic, all alone, to smash home a terrific volley.

Sergio Aguero was substituted before the restart and sat in the dug-out, eyes glazed like a boxer after twelve rounds. Argentina were in free-fall: Modric had time to feint left and turn right before whipping his exquisite goal and Ivan Rakitic had already thumped a free off the crossbar before he finished a 91st minute goal in which Croatia walked the ball through the shell-shocked favourites.

Sampaoli headed down the tunnel at the whistle looking like a man who would happily spend a season in Siberia. He somehow has to pick up the ruins of this night and even if Argentina beat Nigeria in St Petersburg, it may not be enough. Not that a win is guaranteed. Argentina are punch drunk right now.

Argentina (3-4-3): Caballero: Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico: Salvio (Pavon 56), Mascherano, Perez (Dybala 68),Acuna: Messi, Aguero (Higuain 55), Meza. Subs Not Used: Guzman, Ansaldi, Biglia, Fazio, Banega, Di Maria, Rojo, Lo Celso, Armani. Booked: Mercado, Otamendi, Acuna.

Croatia (4-3-3): Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic, Rakitic, Brozovic, Rebic (Kramaric 57),Modric, Perisic (Kovacic 82), Mandzukic (Corluka 90). Subs Not Used: Livakovic, Jedvaj, Bradaric, Caleta-Car, Badelj, Pjaca, Pivaric, Lovre Kalinic. Booked: Rebic ,Mandzukic, Vrsaljko, Brozovic.

Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzbekistan).

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