Argentina’s hopes of progression at World Cup 2018 are on life support after Lionel Messi disappeared and Croatia roared to a vital 3-0 victory that sent them into the knockouts.
Head coach Jorge Sampaoli’s woeful tactical rejig into a 3-4-2-1 formation led to an error-strewn display, that brought out the worst in the Barcelona icon.
All three goals came in the second-half. Eintracht Frankfurt forward Ante Rebic – lucky to stay on after a first-half horror challenge on Eduardo Salvio – emphatically volleyed in from goalkeeper Wily Caballero’s cataclysmic chipped pass, before Real Madrid superstar Luka Modric struck a goal of staggering quality from 25 yards.
Barca’s Ivan Rakitic finished off against a bedraggled side during injury time. His shot was pushed into substitute Mateo Kovacic’s path and he then calmly applied the finish into an open net.
Here are the talking points:
A Messi Ending?
Messi has lived a dream at Barcelona. For his country, an enduring nightmare took a haunting twist at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.
For all his 32 major trophies won and record 552 goals at club level, success on the international stage has proven painfully elusive. A World Cup victory was meant to seal his ascension to the level of Diego Maradona – who watched in tears as La Albiceleste unravelled – and Pele.
A final viable chance now appears to be gone.
If Iceland beat Nigeria on Friday, the former will only need a draw against qualified Croatia to go through. That’s if this imitation Argentina can even beat regular World Cup foes Nigeria.
Portugal and Madrid nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo will be watching on with interest.
Messi’s brief international retirement that followed June 2016’s Copa America final defeat – in which he missed a penalty in the shootout – was meant to be the nadir. How wrong he was.
The 30-year-old followed up last weekend’s saved spot-kick against Iceland with a much-worse display. In that game, he was everywhere without doing anything.
Sampaoli’s change of tactics made arguably the game’s greatest-ever player invisible.
Only two outfield starters for Argentina had less touches than Messi’s 49. The great man had just one shot – blocked on the line by club-mate Rakitic from point-blank range – and made only two key passes.
Not good enough.
Messi was Argentina’s saviour in the final round of qualifying, producing a hat-trick of astounding quality at Ecuador. He could not come up with the goods this time, against superior opposition.
A rub of the face as the teams lined up pre-match appeared to betray the crushing pressure laid upon him. Can this be suffered any longer?
“For me, the national team is over,” Messi said after defeat by Chile in the 2016 Copa final. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.”
The pain from this loss and probable elimination will be exponentially worse. Even than 2014’s reversal in the World Cup showpiece, and three final defeats in the Copa.
Could a permanent end to his tortured spell with La Albiceleste soon follow?
Sampaoli has a Shocker
Sampaoli became Argentina’s third head coach in two years amid a stream of expectation in May 2017.
A tactical sage to rival mentor Marcelo Bielsa was in the dugout for La Albiceleste.
Curiously for the figure who impressed so much at Chile and Sevilla, reality has been far different. The 58-year-old crafted an utter mess on Thursday.
His 3-4-2-1 brought out the worst in Messi, left gaping gaps on the sides of the defence that Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic and Rebic should have repeatedly punished plus favoured the utilisation of limited players like Enzo Perez – guilty of missing an open goal in the first half – instead of inspirational Sevilla midfielder Ever Banega.
But it is not just the latest result that will spark an inquisition.
Sampaoli has chosen to bludgeon his principles of high-tempo pressing with a high defensive line on a squad that is utterly unsuited.
Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi – who has been left at home – have radically underperformed. Not all blame can be apportioned to these wonderful strikers at club level.
Usual No1 Sergio Romero also failed to make the cut because of an injury he insisted was eminently recoverable from. Replacement Caballero imploded and sparked Croatia’s surge.
Paris Saint-Germain winger Angel Di Maria performed wonders, even in centre midfield, for Alejandro Sabella. He was anonymous against Iceland and an unused substitute in the second game.
But this Croatia match will live in infamy.
Centre-backs Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Tagliafuco and Nicolas Otamendi blundered through a debacle that was Argentina’s heaviest group-stage defeat since 1958. Javier Mascherano is a spent force in defensive midfield, despite his legendary achievements.
Sampaoli’s hubris-laden desire to prove his genius has left him looking a fool.
Dalic’s History Boys
After 20 years, Croatia are back in the World Cup’s knockouts.
Pleasingly for former Al Ain boss Zlatko Dalic, there is the promise of so much more to come from his talented side.
Croatia were just as culpable as their shoddy opponents for a forgettable first half.
Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren had a pair of uncertain moments that could have led to a goal.
They registered only four attempts, with one of them on target. Mandzukic headed wide when it appeared easier to score, while Atletico Madrid right-back Sime Vrsaljko produced an embarrassing cross when played in over the top by the incredible Rakitic’s pass that perfectly exposed Sampaoli’s tactical folly.
Just like in the weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Nigeria, they needed a catalyst to get them going.
It came when Caballero decided to chip a ball to Rebic, who’d moments before the interval wasted a glorious opportunity from Modric’s sublime pass. This time, he produced a perfect volley.
Croatia smelled blood after their first attempt of the second period and went for the jugular.
In Clasico pair Rakitic and Modric, they have centre midfielders without compare.
Besiktas centre-back Domagoj Vida is criminally underrated. Internazionale winger Ivan Perisic a true threat.
The addition of Inter anchorman Marcelo Brozovic improved the balance of the team and freed Modric to produce a man-of-the-match display.
An ability to rub salt into gaping Argentina wounds points to their lethality. If – or when – Dalic can draw out 90-minute performances, a repeat of the iconic 1998 side’s run to the last four cannot be discounted.