NIZHNY NOVGOROD (CNN) – Argentina sit on the brink of an unthinkable early exit from the World Cup after a Willy Caballero howler set Croatia on their way to a remarkable 3-0 victory over the two-time winners.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli had tinkered with the team and formation which could only manage a draw against Iceland in its opening group game, but it brought the South American side little joy on Thursday in a match they were clearly second best in.
Despite both sides missing gilt-edged chances to take the lead, it wasn’t until Caballero’s wayward clearance gifted Ante Rebic a volley, which the forward took expertly, that the deadlock was broken in the second half.
Argentina pressed forward in search of an equalizer but a moment of magic from Luka Modric put the game beyond their reach.
The Real Madrid star twisted and turned on the edge of the area and created himself a yard of space, before unleashing an unstoppable, low drive into the bottom corner.
Ivan Rakitić then piled on the humiliation for Argentina with a third goal in stoppage time.
“Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Real Madrid midfielder Modric told reporters after the match. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.
“Our team effort throughout (was the key) and particularly in the second half when we had more possession.
“In the first half when Argentina had the ball we cut off Messi and stopped him getting the ball. We created three clear chances which we missed. But in the second half it opened up and we deserved to win.”
As the teams lined up before the match, the camera panned along Argentina’s starting XI during the national anthem and eventually landed on Lionel Messi.
The Argentine captain had his eyes buried in his hand, forcibly rubbing his forehead. If he had a headache then, a searing migraine was on its way.
His body language improved little once the match started, only briefly perking up with the ball at his feet — though this occurred rarely in the opening 45 minutes. One of the world’s greatest ever players managed just 20 touches in the first half.
Despite Messi’s best efforts, Argentina’s Caballero was the first of the two goalkeepers to be tested, getting down brilliantly to tip Ivan Perisic’s goalbound shot around the post.
Messi got his first sight of goal soon after, almost latching onto Enzo Perez’s chipped ball into the box.
After having started on the back foot, Argentina were soon in the ascendancy and it took a sensational last-ditch block from Dejan Lovren to ensure Maximiliano Meza didn’t open the scoring.
Minutes later, the Argentine fans in the stands had their heads in their hands.
After a comical defensive mix up in the Croatian back line, the ball fell to Perez in the box but the veteran midfielder somehow put his shot wide with the goal gaping.
As the clocked ticked past the half hour mark, most in the stadium will have be left scratching their heads as to how the match had remained goalless for so long.
Mario Mandzukic was the next player guilty of missing a sitter, somehow failing to make contact with a diving header when just two yards from goal.
Croatia had their first-half game plan down to a tee, stifling Messi and Sergio Aguero in attack with neither able to get a kick.
When the deadlock was finally broken less than 10 minutes into the second half, it wasn’t through a piece of individual magic from one of the world class players on display, but rather arguably the worst error of the tournament so far.
Gabriel Mercado’s gentle back pass to Caballero seemed inconspicuous enough, but the Chelsea goalkeeper inexplicably chipped the ball up in front of the onrushing Rebic, who duly obliged and hammered a sweet volley into the top corner.
Argentina’s best passage of play all game almost brought the equalizer 10 minutes later.
Substitute Gonzalo Higuain cut the ball back for Meza in the box, but his shot was parried by Danijel Subasic, before Meza’s follow up was blocked for a corner.
With Argentina struggling to create many clear cut chances, Messi was dropping ever deeper in an attempt to influence the game.
At one point, the Barcelona star was exchanging passes with defender Mercado on the edge of his own half.
Such was the depth of Messi’s frustration, the forward lashed out petulantly in a rare show of anger after tangling with Croatian defender Ivan Strinic.
The man Messi is attempting — and so far failing — to emulate was watching on animatedly from the stands.
With every missed chance and crunching tackle, Argentina great Diego Maradona — who guided the nation to their second World Cup in 1986 — was out of his seat, gesturing wildly with his hands.
But things were about too get much worse for Maradona and Messi, as Modric’s wonderfully manufactured goal put the game beyond doubt.
Argentina’s recent troubles over the past year — which saw them limp through World Cup qualifying — were then perfectly encapsulated in Croatia’s third and final goal.
After Ivan Rakitic’s shot was parried away by Caballero, the entire Argentine back line stopped and fruitlessly appealed for offside, allowing Mateo Kovacic to cut the ball back to Rakitic for an easy tap in.
The win maintained Croatia’s 100% record in Russia and ensured they qualified comfortably for the knockout stages.
Argentina’s World Cup hopes, however, now hang by a thread and they need to beat Nigeria in their final game to stand any chance of qualifying.
But even that may not be enough.
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