Croatia were in dreamland on Thursday after advancing to the knockout phase of the World Cup for the first time in 20 years with a 3-0 rout of Argentina that left a subdued Lionel Messi and his team mates facing yet another flop.
The emphatic Group D victory at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Thursday ensured Croatia became the fourth country to reach the second round of the tournament and condemned twice champions Argentina to an anxious next five days as they await their fate.
Croatia are top of the group with six points while Argentina have just one point from their two games. Iceland, also with one, and Nigeria, yet to open their account, meet in Volgograd on Friday in the second group game for both sides.
Messi was again largely anonymous as Croatia kept him out of the game while, at the same time, taking all their opportunities to ensure a joyful triumph in front of 43,319 spectators at the picturesque stadium on the banks of the Volga.
The win thanks to goals from Ante Rrebic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic followed a 2-0 success against Nigeria in their opening game at the weekend and was a reminder of the quality of a team who attracted little attention ahead of the finals.
The last time Croatia reached the World Cup knockout phase was in 1998 when they finished the tournament in third place.
Croatia had the good fortune of a goalkeeping blunder that presented them with the lead in the second half but pressed home the advantage to add two more well-worked goals as Argentina suffered their heaviest first round group defeat in 60 years.
“The most important objective was achieved. We are ecstatic over it,” said captain Luka Modric, author of a superb strike for the second goal which effectively wrapped up the result
“Our collective game, particularly in the second half was excellent. We cut off Messi, we stopped him receiving the ball.”
Rebic was handed a gift soon after the break as Argentina keeper Willy Caballero feebly cleared the ball straight back at the striker, but it still took a superb over the shoulder shot to open the scoring for Croatia in the 53rd minute.
The mistake sparked life into what had been an error-filled contest. although provoking differing reactions. While Croatia looked to relax and protect their lead, Argentina became increasingly desperate and frustrated.
Modric then showed his quality with a rasping shot from outside the penalty area to double the lead in the 80th before Rakitic hit a curling free kick against the crossbar soon after.
But Messi’s club mate at Barcelona was not to be denied and Rakitic finished off a series of passes that cut apart the Argentina defence to score the third goal in stoppage time.
For Messi, who will be 31 on Sunday, the spectre of failing again to win a major title with Argentina looms large in what is almost certainly his last tournament with the national team.
It could be over as early as next Tuesday when Argentina complete their group campaign against Nigeria in St Petersburg.
“Leo is prejudiced by not having in us, drivers as good as him. We, as the drivers, have to take responsibility,” said coach Jorge Sampaoli.
“There’s a minimal possibility of qualifying. There is shame and pain at not delivering for the Argentine people.”