Too bad to be true. The Argentinian squad seen tonight was an embarrassing collection of horrors assembled by their confused coach Jorge Sampaoli. Croatia, on the other hand, are one of the most dangerous side seen in the World Cup so far, and showed no mercy for the confused Albiceleste, which was trampled with three goals, and left hanging by a thread in Pool C.
With two wins in a row, Zlatko Dalic’s Vatreni booked their ticket for the knock-out phase one game in advance, putting their head back among the World Cup sweet sixteen for the first time since 1998. A team traditionally overflowing with talent, Croatia had collected a long streak of disappointing performances during the latest tournament editions. This may finally be the time to get their stuff done, for a squad that can feature players the like of Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and, moreover, Real Madrid’s Luka Modric – who is getting more and more decisive every day.
A few days ago, against Nigeria, they had seemed the same usual Croatia, doing just their bare minimum to overcome a weaker opponent. But tonight, they brutally finished the Argentinians as soon as they smelled their blood – scoring with Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic.
…and Argentina? Oh dear, Argentina. Where should we start from?
If the two-time World Champions end up bidding an early farewell to the competition, coach Jorge Sampaoli will undoubtedly be the first one to pay for it. Not without reason. Sampaoli was called at the Albiceleste’s sickbed in Summer 2017, with the team seriously at risk of missing the qualification to the Russian competition. He did manage to bring the team to Russia, mostly thanks to a hat-trick scored by Lionel Messi in the last decisive match with Ecuador. But since then, he got stuck into a sequence of questionable decisions that brought the team on the verge of a disaster.
When goalkeeper Sergio Romero got injured on the World Cup’s eve, Sampaoli decided to rely on Chelsea’s substitute goalie Wilfredo Caballero – with the public opinion pushing for other names. Well, tonight the 36-year-old repaid him with a colossal blunder that gave way to Croatia’s first goal…
After the disappointing debut with Iceland, he changed module and switched to a three-man defensive line, forcing Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico (a left back…) to slot in it. Center back Federico Fazio, coming from a good season with Roma, was totally forgotten on the bench while he could have been a good choice for a three-man defense. So was midfielder Giovani Lo Celso, who was credited as a possible star in the Selecciòn, and still has to collect a single minute of play in this World Cup. Some of Sampaoli’s different choices for the midfield – Marcos Acuna and Enzo Pérez – were puzzling to say the least.
Lionel Messi, the five-time Ballon d’Or who has been meant to be the captain and commander in chief of his National side since at least 10 years and 3 World Cups, failed yet another test. Yesterday, he looked like a foreign body in Argentina’s disjunct lineup, doing even worse – if possible – that in the game with the Icelandic.
The match in Nizhny Novgorod was not a memorable one when it came to football itself. The two teams spent the first half trying to hurt each other literally – rather than by putting a ball into each other’s net. Referee Ravshan Irmatov had to use his yellow card six times to cool down the nerves in a battle that escalated early and risked catching fire in the 84th minute, when a frustration foul by Nicolas Otamendi, with his side down 0-2, ignited a small brawl that was promptly sedated.
Croatia and Argentina collected one chance each during the first 45 minutes. Ivan Perisic called Caballero to action after just four minutes and, at least in that occasion, Argentina’s number 23 was ready. Enzo Pérez missed the target with the Croatian’s goal wide open in front of him.
Then, just four minutes after the break, came the episode that likely changed the direction of the match. Gabriel Mercado passed the ball back to his goalie, but Wilfredo Caballero’s return miserably failed – turning into a clumsy chip for lurking Ante Rebic. Eintracht Frankfurt’s forward, with a past with Fiorentina in Italy, decided at least to make a beautiful goal out of it – with a perfect volley that gave the Vatreni the lead. Messi promptly run to cheer his goalkeeper up, and that was probably the best thing he did in the whole game.
Sampaoli sent in in rapid succession Gonzalo Higuain and then Cristian Pavon, but the clearest chance for the Albiceleste came from a shot by Maximiliano Meza, which was deflected by Danijel Subasic. Rakitic prevented Messi from tapping in, and that was all Argentina could produce in the second half, despite a further substitution that sent Paulo Dybala in.
Around the 74th minute, Sampaoli took his blazer off, showing a collection of tattoos on both his bulky arms. Like to say, “it’s time to get tough.” But Luka Modric definitively shut his ambitions down five minutes later, when he made his marker Otamendi dizzy, and then released a formidable shot that reached the far-right corner of Caballero’s goal.
Ivan Rakitic sent a warning sign to the Albiceleste hitting the crossbar from a free kick, before making to the scorecard during extra time for Croatia’s 3-0, with the whole Argentinian defense leaving him free to do whatever he wanted – while they waited for an offside call that never came. A shocking conclusion for the South Americans, whose chances to pass the Group Stage are now tied to Iceland not making any other miracle against Nigeria tomorrow. And a shameful situation, for a country that has been waiting for a good goalkeeper since the days of Ubaldo Fillol, and for a good coach since the days of Carlos Bilardo.
Don’t cry for me Argentina, Madonna used to sing. There is no risk of that, as if things don’t change fast for the Selecciòn, the Argentinians will be too busy crying for their National football team.
June 21, 2018 – World Cup Group Stage Pool C
SCORERS: 53′ Rebic, 80′ Modric, 86′ Rakitic
|ARGENTINA (3-4-2-1): Caballero; Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio (56’ Pavon), Mascherano, Perez (67’ Dybala), Acuña; Messi, Meza; Aguero (54’ Higuain) (Armani, Guzman, Ansaldi, Fazio, Rojo, Biglia, Banega, Di Maria, Lo Celso) Coach: Sampaoli|
|CROATIA (4-2-3-1): Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic; Rakitic, Brozovic; Perisic (82’ Kovacic), Modric, Rebic (57′ Kramaric); Mandzukic (92’ Corluka) (Livakovic, L. Kalinic, Jedvaj, Caleta-car, Pivaric, Badelj, Bradaric, Pjaca) Coach: Dalic|
REFEREE: Irmatov (Uzbekistan)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Mercado, Acuna, Otamendi (A), Rebic, Mandzukic, Brozovic (C); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 4′
Click below to relive some other matches in Group C: