The game was all but over. A listless Argentinian team had been destroyed by a clinical Croatian side, and they were waiting to be put out of their misery by the final blast of referee Ravshan Irmatov’s whistle. Talismanic captain Lionel Messi had done nothing. In goal, Willy Caballero had been woeful. Now, in the dying moments, Croatia ran forward on the counter-attack. Three men broke forward against a stretched Argentinian defence, and the ball reached Ivan Rakitić in the centre. Rakitić fired a shot at Caballero, who dived to make the save but couldn’t tip it out of harm’s way. Instead, it fell to late substitute Mateo Kovačić. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, he could have easily scored then and there. He decided not to, playing a pass into Rakitić, who brought the ball to a complete stop before disdainfully stroking it past Marcos Acuña into the back of the net. Croatia’s previous two goals were bad enough. This one was so contemptuous, and showed so little respect for Argentina’s proud footballing history, that it was much worse. Before Rakitić’s goal, Croatia had beaten Argentina. After Rakitić scored, the defeat became a humiliation.
It hadn’t started that poorly for Argentina. They won their fair share of possession in the early stages, and managed to find a few little openings against the Croatian defence. Croatia had most of the clear-cut chances, like when Ivan Perišić tore into space and drilled a shot at Caballero, and when Mario Mandžukić couldn’t quite connect with an open header from close range, but they weren’t dominating. Then, Argentina blew their best opportunity of the match. It started on the wing, where Acuña cut inside right-back Šime Vrsaljko and caught Dejan Lovren out of position. When Domagoj Vida deflected the resulting cross straight to Enzo Pérez on the edge of the box, the midfielder was faced with a defence in disarray and an open net. Somehow, he missed.Embed from Getty Images
Jorge Sampaoli (front) looks on as Croatia put the finishing touches on their victory. Sampaoli came into the match under a lot of pressure, and the crushing defeat didn’t help his cause.
As the stalemate continued to linger, Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli was nervous. After Argentina’s first-up draw with Iceland he was under pressure, and it showed. When Maximiliano Meza’s attempt at a cross inadvertently hit the bar, he threw his arms up in the air. When Ante Rebić, right in front of the Argentinian bench, fouled Eduardo Salvio, Sampaoli raged at the referee, calling for a red card and trying to find someone – anyone – with whom he could air his concerns. Occasionally, he summoned a mysterious-looking long-haired assistant, and, with their mouths covered in case Croatia had a lip reader handy, they engaged in tactical discussions. Mostly, though, the bald-headed coach just paced around his technical area, wearing a black jacket, a black shirt and a concerned demeanour. He walked at a disconcertingly fast pace, as though he was running late for an important appointment. As the contest became increasingly physical, Sampaoli became increasingly tense.
Then, shortly after the break, Croatia took the lead in embarrassing circumstances. The goal was a gift. Argentina intercepted Croatia’s long heave forward, and Gabriel Mercado played it back to his goalkeeper. He shouldn’t have. When Caballero got the ball, he looked to pass it back to Mercado. Even with Rebić standing vaguely in between them, it shouldn’t have been a hard task. After all, Rebić’s press was more a token gesture than a serious attempt to win the ball back. Then Caballero tried a chip pass, mishit it and ballooned it in the direction of Rebić, who made no mistake with the volley. It was a farcical piece of play, and it left Argentina chasing the game against a strong Croatian team.
At one point, Gonzalo Higuaín nearly created an equaliser with a nice cut-back for Meza, but Danijel Subašić made a fine reflex save and Rakitić desperately slid in to prevent Messi from getting himself a goal. Argentina’s star, hero and occasional one-man team had been completely shut down, and his teammates couldn’t cope. As the game went on, Messi showed signs of frustration. On the touchline, Sampaoli had ditched the jacket, and was now pacing around in a slightly-too-tight black t-shirt which clearly showed his heavily tattooed arms. He was frantic, and the removal of the jacket only made him look more nervous. His substitutions had been made, and it was out of his hands. Then Luka Modrić scored.Embed from Getty Images
Luka Modrić (right) celebrates after doubling Croatia’s lead late in the game. Modrić’s goal from long range capped off a brilliant performance in midfield.
Modrić, as ever, had been excellent in midfield. Now, with 10 minutes of normal time left to play, he received the ball on the edge of the box, with Nicolás Otamendi barring his way. He took a touch to the right, then the left, before going right again. Then he unleashed a shot at the Argentinian goal. Otamendi was there, but his outstretched right leg couldn’t impede the ball’s progress. Caballero dived full length, but he could only get his fingertips to the ball and couldn’t stop it as it lodged itself in the bottom corner. It was a great goal, and it sealed Argentina’s fate. Sampaoli’s team were in no mood to attempt a miraculous comeback.
Tempers flared late, with Otamendi nearly starting a brawl by lashing out at Rakitić and two other players receiving yellow cards as the match drew to a close. Argentina tried to manufacture something in attack, relying on the immensely talented players on the pitch to see them through, but there was no real structure and Croatia rebuffed them with contemptuous ease. After Rakitić’s goal, and with the game drawing to a close, Sampaoli could only stand in the dugout and stare into the distance. Argentina still have a chance to progress, but that chance is as slim as ever. Their talents have failed, Sampaoli’s time as coach is almost certainly coming to a disappointing end, and it would take a miracle for Messi to get his World Cup title. In Argentina, football is so revered that it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call this defeat a national crisis. There’s no way of knowing how big the fallout of this crushing defeat – against brilliant opposition, it must be said – will prove to be.
Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Argentina (3-4-3): Caballero – Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio (Pavón 56), Pérez (Dybala 68), Mascherano, Acuña; Messi, Agüero (Higuaín 54), Meza.
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Brozović; Perišić (Kovačić 82), Modrić, Rebić (Kramarić 57); Mandžukić (Ćorluka 90+3).
Ivan Rakitić finishes off Croatia’s win with a goal into an open net. Rakitić put in a brilliant midfield performance, and the late goal was just reward for his efforts.
1. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić finished off a simple chance in injury time to cap off a brilliant individual game with a deserved goal. He fought hard all day, and his block to deny Messi from close range was a perfect example of how hard he worked defensively. In attack, he combined well with Modrić and started to get into dangerous positions, and his all-round performance bodes well for the rest of the tournament.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić was at his best directing traffic in the middle of the park. He was always on hand to pick out a key pass, make a dangerous little run or find some other way to trouble Argentina’s defence, and he capped it off with a brilliant goal from long range. With him pulling the strings in the middle there is very little Croatia can’t do.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić went off injured less than an hour into the game, but he left a mark with his incredibly vigorous attack on the ball. He was rewarded for his hard running with a goal when he intercepted Caballero’s horrendous pass and made a tough volley look deceptively easy, and Croatia will hope he is fit to take the field for their final group stage game.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić is still yet to score a goal at this tournament, but he has looked so good leading the line that he is sure to find the scoresheet some time soon. He used his physical power and excellent positioning to intimidate the Argentinian defence, and he could have bagged a couple of goals with headers that only just missed the target.
5. Marcos Acuña (Argentina)
Coming into the team after Argentina’s disappointing display against Iceland, Acuña was one of few bright spots to come out of the loss. He fought hard until the end, and showed some promise shuffling up and down the left wing. His crosses were about the most dangerous aspect of Argentina’s play.