British Broadcasting Corporation – Argentina are facing the prospect of an early World Cup exit after a dreadful error from goalkeeper Willy Caballero set Croatia on their way to victory and a place in the last 16.
On a night when so much was expected of Argentina captain Lionel Messi, Caballero made the most telling contribution to his team’s fate with an attempted chip over Ante Rebic that backfired badly, allowing the striker to volley into an exposed net in the 53rd minute.
Messi – adrift for much of the match, especially during a pedestrian opening half – rallied his side, but neither he nor substitute forwards Gonzalo Higuain and Pablo Dybala could find a way through in Nizhny Novgorod.
The closest Messi came was a half-chance, a snatch at a rebound from a Maximiliano Meza shot which was blocked by Ivan Rakitic and turned behind to safety.
It was a dogged defensive second-half display from Croatia, illuminated by a moment of magic from their own masterful number 10, Luka Modric.
His curled shot from range drifted beautifully beyond Caballero’s gloves to put his side two ahead, before Rakitic’s injury-time tap-in sealed a victory that moves the Europeans through to the knockout stage and also leaves them in a strong position to win the group.
Argentina are no longer in control of their own destiny. This defeat follows their opening 1-1 draw with Iceland, in which Messi missed a penalty, and now even a heavy win over Nigeria in their final game on Tuesday may not be enough to send them through to the next round.
Should Iceland beat Nigeria in their second Group D game on Friday, Iceland would need only a draw against Croatia in their final match.
For Messi, a prolific performer at club level with Barcelona, this was another harrowing chapter in his recent history of pain and disappointment in the international game.
‘I BEG FOR FORGIVENESS’
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli: “First and foremost I beg for the fans’ forgiveness. The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brillance. The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.
“I have always looked for the best position on the pitch for my players. The players have a special responsibility as well, but we didn’t manage to find relationships that Argentina or Lionel Messi benefited from.
“Croatia were an excellent team, but after we conceded we lost our way and we were emotionally broken. We couldn’t change the course of events.
“I am very hurt by the defeat but I probably didn’t understand the match as I should have.”
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic: “I have trusted my team from the first day. I didn’t believe we would be through after the second game so we have to be happy because we have beaten a strong Argentinian side with the best player in the world. Argentina were not confused; we were excellent.
“Over the last few days we haven’t looked at tactics because I wanted to relieve my players of the stress. We had good scouts and we analysed the opposition well. We adapted our style to them. Let’s enjoy this moment.
“In the first half we were compact and created three sitters but we failed to score. That’s why I told the players in the second half that we will create more chances but we had to press higher.”
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