You have to commend the foresight of Argentinian manager Jorge Sampaoli, AKA Pitbull in disguise.
No, not for sticking with Sergio Agüero in the starting line-up over Gonzalo Higuaín. No, not even for dropping winger Ángel Di María post the side’s draw against Iceland. But for his uncanny predication of not only the score line against his side in favour of Croatia, but also specifying Croatia’s shots on target, when coming up with his infamous nickname of Mr. 3-0-5 nearly 2 decades earlier.
Much of the talk before the game surrounded the decision to send Croatian striker Nikola Kalinic home after he refused to come on as a substitute in the side’s 2-0 victory over Nigeria. Kalinic initially claimed back pain to be the reason as to why he could not enter play; perhaps caused by the metaphorical knife he felt in his back over not receiving a starting spot in the opening match up.
The blow of the first whistle saw the packed out Nizhny Novgorod stadium erupt in noise from fans of both sides. The upper tier sponsor boards were covered end-to-end with team banners and country flags, indicating Russia were unsuccessful in securing the overzealous services of Allianz’s stadium-supplied security and leaving the game at-risk of being overrun by insurgent sokkah hooligans.
The opening 45 saw many opportunities from both sides, but remained goalless at the break. Argentina could not capitalise on a chance presented to them on a silver platter through a chaotic moment from the Croatian defence in the 30th minute. Whilst Croatia’s Mandzukic could only manage a glancing off-target header in the 33rd, and Rebic’s right foot shot dribbled wide during injury time of the first half.
The start of the second half saw Messi return from the tunnel looking unhappy following not seeing the ball for the final 20 minutes of the first half, foreshadowing his mood and involvement for the remainder of the match.
Rebic then opened the scoring following an absolute howler from Argentinian keeper Caballero who cleared the ball directly into his path, in which Rebic spared no mercy in converting to chalk up his first international goal in nearly 5 years. However, some will argue that Rebic was lucky to be on the pitch at all, following a 39th minute studs up challenge on Salvio that saw Sampaoli pleading for VAR intervention to upgrade the card colour from yellow to red.
Argentina were searching for goals off the bench, with a flurry of quick substitutions including Higuaín taking the place of Agüero in the 54th and Salvio off for Pavón in the 56th. Croatia was also forced into a change in the 57th, with goal scorer Rebic replaced by Kramaric due to injury.
With Argentina’s best chance from Meza in the 64th being denied by Subasic, Dybala was introduced into play to at least give the Italian’s something to lay a distant claim to in this tournament.
Modric then came through with the sucker punch in the 80th minute, with a stunning long-range goal from outside of the box to heighten his legend status amongst Croatian fans.
With the score line reading 2-0, the boiling point came for Argentina in the 85th, with Otamendi seeing yellow for unnecessary foul through kicking the ball into the face of Rakitic post spot kick already being awarded.
But Rakitic had the last laugh in the 91st from what was an embarrassing blunder from the Argentinian back line. Rakitic was able to find the goal after being provided with both time and space due to the Argentinian defence not playing to the whistle, stopping in their tracks waiting for the offside flag that was never coming.
The 3-0 defeat saw Argentina concede their biggest group stage loss in 60 years and in the battle of the number 10’s, Modric clearly came out on top of Messi. The loss does not end Argentina’s World Cup run; however, it does make things difficult and places increased reliance on other results going their way. Sampaoli immediately stormed down the tunnel post match, evidently not feeling the international love, presumably straight to the team’s hotel, motel, Holiday Inn?
And as an aside, some advice to Kalinic; perhaps if you are planning on a dummy spit to stake your claim in the starting 11, make sure the team isn’t capable of not only winning convincingly without you having spent a minute on the park, but also entering the final 16 for the first time since 1998 without even blinking an eye at your absence.
By Hayley Leedham