How the mighty have fallen. Almost. Argentina suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Croatia at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium and are on the cusp of an early exit from the FIFA World Cup. Embarrassing by the margin of defeat, by the style of play and by the shambolic approach. With the defeat, the 2014 World Cup runners-up and Copa America finalists in 2016 and 2017, are looking at a potential early flight back to Buenos Aires.
Defending? What defending?
The first half can be summed up in two defensive mistakes and two sitters missed. In the 30th minute, Dejan Lovren gave the ball away and with the goal gaping in front of him, Enzo Perez missed the back of the net completely while finding only the side netting. Two minutes later, Sime Vrsaljko put in a gorgeous ball into the area and Argentina defense went to sleep allowing Mario Mandzukic all the space in the world to head the ball home from far post but he missed the chance completely. One sitters missed each and somehow, just somehow, an extremely open game remained 0-0 till half time.
You have to feel sorry for goalkeeping mistakes such as letting the ball sneak past into the goal as David De Gea did against Portugal or Loris Karius in the Champions League final. But it is a bit difficult to be sympathetic for goalkeeping mistakes such as Willy Caballero’s attempted chip over an attacker in front of him. But fair play to Ante Rebic for a clinical strike – volleying the ball home from a good height.
Lionel Messi played a key role in Argentina getting to Russia. He didn’t have the greatest time on the pitch against the Icelandic wall but against Croatia, early signs indicated that the magician would get space to cast a spell and unshackle Argentina. But, for that to happen, the ball needs to come to him – which rarely happened. Playing in an advanced role, Messi looked isolated and ‘missing’. After conceding the opener, Messi dropped deep to get more involvement on the ball but a hapless Argentina, devoid of ideas, were summed up by Diego Maradona’s exasperated expression in the stands.
Where’s the “defence”?
Jorge Sampaoli, who looked like he was dressed for a trip to the casino, shifted to a three-man defence to allow more space in midfield. The 3-4-2-1 formation had Nicolas Otamendi, Gabriel Mercado and Nicolas Tagliafico in a narrow central defence. Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna played along the wings and the idea was simple: not to lose ball in key areas or risk getting exposed. Five minutes in and that plan royally backfired. Ivan Perisic came very close to scoring but for a Caballero fingertip save. Some minutes later, the other flank was exposed as Croatia made most of the width. There were multiple moments of nervousness with the importance of the game telling on the Albiceleste. If it wasn’t easy at the start, it got whole lot worse following the Caballero howler. It showed in how Argentina passed and moved the ball around. It showed in the defensive display as well. And the outburst came out with Otamendi hammering the ball into Ivan Rakitic’s face when the Barcelona midfielder was down.
Take Croatia easily at own peril
Croatia have now won back-to-back matches and are through to the last-16 for the first time since 1998. Then, six goals from Davor Sukur took Croatia to the semifinals before they lost to France but went on to bag the third place in 2-1 win over Netherlands. With Rakitic and Luka Modric bossing the midfield, Mandzukic up top, Vida proving to be a handful in defence, Perisic’s lung-bursting runs, Croatia are a handful and a tough side to get past. They’re off to a fierce start and are likely to make life very difficult.