The thousands of dejected and tearful faces painted white and blue in Nizhny Novgorod Stadium immediately after the final whistle vividly summed up the story of this match. Argentina, a team loaded with talented and highlighted by Lionel Messi, entered the World Cup with both high hopes and deep-seated worries about the chemistry of its squad.
After two games — a hard-fought tie against tiny Iceland and a thoroughly disappointing 3-0 loss against Croatia on Thursday — the Argentines find themselves facing long odds to even escape Group D. Croatia, with its own talented attack featuring Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic, showed exactly what it is capable of doing in a patient and disciplined dismantling of Argentina.
It was a mind-boggling error from Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero — a 36-year-old backup at Chelsea only called upon to start for Argentina after Sergio Romero sustained a knee injury — that opened up the scoring for Croatia. His whiffed pass in the 53rd minute offered an easy finish for Ante Rebic. Argentina appeared to be mounting a response, but Modric provided a dagger in the 80th minute with a brilliant curling shot from the top of the box, and Rakitic finished it off with a third goal in stoppage time.
Croatia has almost certainly booked its ticket to the knockout round, where it will be a dangerous opponent for nearly anyone. Argentina, in contrast, will face loads of scrutiny for its inability to play cohesively in its first two matches. Messi, naturally, will bear the brunt of that, as he turned in another underwhelming and largely disengaged performance on Thursday. On top of that will come the inevitable and unflattering comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo, who currently leads the World Cup with four goals in dragging Portugal to a draw and one win.
Messi’s World Cup is still not over, but even his talent alone cannot carry Argentina out of the hole it has created for itself, as the team must hope for good fortune along with a win against Nigeria on Tuesday.
In another match, France beat Peru 1-0 to earn automatic qualification into round 16.
-New York Times