Willy Caballero’s monumental gaffe gifted Ante Rebic a goal in the 53rd minute as Croatia advanced to the knockout round of the World Cup and put two-time champion Argentina in a precarious position in Group D with a deserved 3-0 victory Thursday at Nizhny Novogorod.
Caballero, Argentina’s No. 1 because Sergio Romero is injured, made an absolute mess of a clearance following a back pass and tried an unconvincing chip to Gabriel Mercado. The Chelsea backup popped the ball into the air, and Rebic had an uncontested right-footed volley over the helpless keeper from 12 yards.
Luka Modric added his second goal in as many matches in the 80th minute with a world-class individual effotrt and Ivan Rakitic poured salt into La Albiceleste’s wounds with a third in second-half stoppage time.
Even with Jorge Sampaoli unveiling a revamped lineup and new formation after being held to a 1-1 draw against Iceland, Argentina was again listless and had the starch knocked out of it by Caballero’s colossal mistake and turned the final 10-plus minutes into a parade of cynical play with reckless challenges and a pair of yellow cards accrued.
The loss left La Albiceleste in third place on one point with a minus-3 goal differential through two matches and hoping either Nigeria beat Iceland or the sides play to a draw Friday to give them any chance of still scraping through to the knockout round with a win over the Super Eagles.
Lionel Messi, often caught in no man’s land in the final third without possession, suffered through one of his worst World Cup matches and with Argentina overall. He hastily retreated to the locker room after the final whistle, not shaking hands with any players.
Argentina last failed to advance out of group play in 2002 and absorbed its heaviest defeat in group play since a 6-1 loss to Czechoslovakia in 1958.
But Croatia was also a worthy winner as Modric and Rakitic bossed the midfield and helped neutralize Messi, limiting his touches and surrounding the Barcelona star with two and three players when he did have the ball.
The Vatreni have the maximum six points through their first two matches and will clinch the top spot in Group D with a draw versus Iceland, which pipped them in European World Cup qualifying.
Sampaoli made three changes to the starting XI as Gabriel Mercado, Enzo Perez and Marcos Acuna replaced Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Lucas Biglia in a 3-4-3 formation. Sampaoli, who crackled with energy stalking back and forth in front of his team’s bench, opted for the three-man backline to give Messi more support.
Yet it was Croatia which fashioned the first scoring chance of the contest as Caballero did well to push Ivan Perisic’s sharp-angled shot from 10 yards on the left around the right post. Messi nearly got his boot to a looping pass by Perez in the 12th minute that Danijel Subasic caught.
Both teams, though, spurned gilt-edged chances in the opening 45 minutes.
Argentina should have gone ahead on the half-hour as Croatia got pulled apart and keeper Danijel Subasic came off his line to try and neutralize the danger. Eduardo Salvio’s pass was deflected by Domagoj Vida straight to Perez, and with the net at his mercy and Subasic out of position, he slotted wide of the left post from 15 yards.
Mario Mandzukic, though, also wasted a half-chance minutes later as he failed to meet Vrsaljko’s cross from the right cleanly and headed wide of the left post from six yards. Rebic should have done so much better in first-half stoppage time as Modric found him with a sharp cross-pitch pass on the counter, but he was unable to keep the ball in front of his feet and then miscued his shot well wide.
Moments before Rebic’s goal, Argentina put its first shot on target as Aguero tested Subasic with a sharp-angled shot from 10 yards. After Caballero’s colossal error, Argentina’s best chance to equalize came in the 64th minute.
Gonzalo Higuain picked out a cutting Maximiliano Meza with a back pass in the left, but Subasic got down quickly to make a save with his feet. The rebound squirted near the left post, but a sliding effort from Rakitic prevented Messi from getting a touch near it.
Croatia did well balancing between defense and probing Argentina for a second, and it finally came 10 minutes from time when Modric gained possession 25 yards out and deked from right to left to right to open a half-step of space against Nicolas Otamendi before letting fly with a right-footed shot from 20 yards that a diving Caballero had no chance of stopping as it curled inside the right post.
Tensions in this physical match that totaled 36 fouls finally boiled over in the 85th minute when Javier Mascherano scythed Rakitic from behind and Otamendi booted the ball into Rakitic’s face while he was prone on the pitch, earning the Argentine central defender a yellow card that may be further reviewed by FIFA’s disciplinary committee.
Rakitic nearly got the last laugh on the ensuing free kick from 25 yards as he thumped the crossbar near the upper left corner. He then got that laugh in the 91st minute, getting a second crack at Caballero courtesy of Mateo Kovacic, who freely tracked down the rebound of Rakitic’s first miss and passed it back to Messi’s club teammate for an easy goal from six yards.
Rebic, Mandzukic, Sime Vrsajlko and Vedran Corluka all picked up yellow cards. Rakitic picked up one in the win over Nigeria, and it is possible Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic will rest some of them to make sure they are available for the round of 16.