Argentina could crash out of the World Cup in the group stage after a humiliating 3-0 defeat to a Croatia side that soars into the last 16.
Jorge Sampaoli was under pressure after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Iceland, in which Leo Messi saw a penalty saved, and doubled down with a change to three at the back, dropping Angel Di Maria and not using any Serie A players in the starting XI. Croatia, on the other hand, had four Italy-based men in the line-up, even though Nikola Kalinic was sent home for refusing to come on as a substitute in the win over Nigeria.
In the opening four minutes, Willy Caballero needed a fingertip save to turn Inter winger Ivan Perisic’s angled drive round the far post.
Marcos Acuna almost opened the scoring by accident, his wayward cross coming off the crossbar, but there was a huge let-off when Croatia were caught in some chaotic defending only for Enzo Perez to prod wide of an open goal.
At the other end, a long Sime Vrsaljko cross found Mario Mandzukic clear at the back post only to turn the diving header wide from a couple of yards.
Former Fiorentina midfielder Ante Rebic was booked for a high tackle on Eduardo Salvio’s ankle, while Argentina appealed for a straight red. Rebic then failed to make the most of a sublime Luka Modric pass due to a terrible first touch.
The deadlock was broken by a genuinely shocking error from Willy Caballero, whose back-pass was volleyed in by Rebic from 12 yards. It was a great finish, but a dismal chipped almost assist from the goalkeeper.
Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain was introduced and made an immediate impact, pulling back from the by-line for Maximiliano Meza and forcing a tricky save from point-blank range.
Paulo Dybala was finally given his first appearance of this World Cup for the final 22 minutes and he did fire over the bar, but Croatia doubled their lead with a long-range stunner from Modric into the bottom corner.
Nicolas Otamendi was fortunate not to be sent off after kicking the ball at Ivan Rakitic’s head as he was on the ground, then from that free kick Rakitic thumped the crossbar.
There was still time for 3-0, as Willy Caballero managed a great save on Rakitic's counter, but the static defending allowed him a second bite at the cherry.
Argentina 0-3 Croatia
Rebic 53 (C), Modric 81 (C), Rakitic 91 (C)
Argentina: Caballero; Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio (Pavon 56), Mascherano, Perez (Dybala 68), Acuna; Messi, Aguero (Higuain 54), Meza
Croatia: Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic; Rakitic, Brozovic; Rebic (Kramaric 57), Modric, Perisic (Kovacic 82); Mandzukic
Ref: Irmatov (UZB)
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