Argentina were looking to bounce back from a disappointing result against Iceland on Thursday night, while Croatia knew that a win would see them into the knockout stages with a game to spare.
Lionel Messi and co had yet to get going at this tournament so far, while Croatia put in a thoroughly professional performance to defeat Nigeria 2-0 last weekend.
It was all set up for a terrific, even contest with playmakers Lionel Messi and Luka Modric at the heart of everything – however, while one of those players turned up to the party, the other was left frustrated in the rain as his mates’ car broke down.
A second-half masterclass from Croatia sealed the three points for Zlatko Dalic’s men, courtesy of a fine Ante Rebic volley from a Willy Caballero howler, a brilliant long-range strike from Luka Modric, and an Ivan Rakitic tap-in following some appallingly lethargic Argentine defending in the dying minutes.
But what did we learn on a night where Croatia sailed through to the last 16, while Argentina have some serious work to do to salvage their World Cup campaign?
Luka Modric is this tournament’s star-in-waiting
In the battle of the playmakers tonight, there was only one winner here. Luka Modric is a joy to watch as a footballer, with the ball glued to his feet at times as he glided past the Argentine defence.
100% take-ons completed (2/2)
100% aerial duels won (3/3)
100% tackles won (2/2)
2 chances created
World class. pic.twitter.com/pmJP87BYxZ
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 21, 2018
The Real Madrid man, playing in a more advanced role than that which he occupied against Nigeria, really took charge of the match in the second half and was a major driving force in Croatia’s victory.
Croatia are class . Modric is a joy to watch
— Peter Crouch (@petercrouch) June 21, 2018
Modric capped a storming performance with a brilliant long-range goal with ten minutes remaining, the goal that caused Argentine heads to sink to the floor and effectively ended the tie as a contest. Having been a star for Real Madrid for a number of year’s Modric doesn’t need to prove his class to anyone at this stage – but now he has the chance to cement his status as one of the world’s best by being a key component in Croatia’s run through the knockout stages.
The spine of this Croatia team is capable of winning the World Cup
In many ways, Croatia showed Argentina exactly what they were lacking in Samara, insofar as they had a gameplan and executed perfectly with a show of technical from Modric supplemented by a strong supporting cast of wonderful talent.
With Modric pulling the strings in a more advanced role, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic were superb in the centre of midfield (with the latter getting his reward with the third goal), Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic were highly effective from wide, and Dejan Lovren and Sime Vrsaljko picked up from where they left off against Nigeria.
A highly talented group of players playing their way into form – while it will still take more than this for many to be convinced that Croatia can go all the way, it was arguably the best performance by any side in the competition thus far.
Argentina’s defence is a shambles
As bad as the Argentine defence was against Iceland, it was exponentially worse against Croatia. Indeed, the switch to three at the back, a Sampaoli hallmark from his Chile days, only served to cause confusion and left each one of the defence looking unsure as to where he was supposed to be and who he was supposed to be covering.
Willy Caballero, a goalkeeper in the side apparently due to his ability with the ball at his feet, willfully caused the first goal with a ridiculous attempt at being clever in a medium-pressure situation, Nicolas Otamendi should have been sent off towards the end and was generally a liability throughout, Eduardo Salvio’s inability to track back left massive gaps, while Nicolas Tagliafic looked like he could have been competent if the communication across the board was up to scratch.
All in all, a disaster at the back – the main source of Argentina’s downfall.
This defeat is on Jorge Sampaoli, not Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi will take much of the public flak for this defeat (because not being able to single-handedly drag the collective dumpster fire going on around him to a competent performance is seen as a major flaw, apparently) but this was not his fault. Messi deserves sympathy for his ordeal her, sympathy that the rest of the Argentina team – even household names like Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain – are not confident enough in their own ability to take responsibility for themsevles instead of trying to funnel everything through the Barcelona forward.
Modric: “Messi is incredible, but he can’t do everything by himself. In football you have to be helped by your teammates. He’s a great, but he needs help.”
— Rafael Hernández (@RafaelH117) June 21, 2018
Make no mistake, though, this was a tactical disaster from the manager from start to finish. The team selection, partnering Javier Mascherano with Enzo Perez while the far more effective and fit for purpose Ever Banega sat on the bench, for example, was criticised from the moment the teamsheet came out and almost everyone saw what was coming.
Jorge Sampaoli has a preferred style of play, but doesn’t have the players available to him to execute it. As a result, the style of play is muddled and confusing, a mish-mash of things that Sampaoli wants to be so but just aren’t, and even the manager looks baffled as to how to fix it.
Even if Argentina make it out of the group, France will just do them what Croatis have just done.
Iceland will be growing in confidence that they can get out of this group
From a position as the group’s outsiders, Iceland are suddenly in a position of power in this group. Having put in a tremendous display against Argentina last week, expectations were raised – and with the South Americans capitulating so badly against Croatia tonight, the prospect of Iceland getting out of this group is suddenly very real.
Not to get ahead of ourselves here, but should they defeat Nigeria – and given the teams’ respective performances in their openers last week, it’s a good possibility – then Heimir Hallgrímsson could seal qualification to the last 16 with just a point against Croatia.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic has already suggested that he will rest players for that particular clash – potentially putting Argentina in a very uncomfortable position.