Argentina, faced with a must-win game, fell flat on their face as Croatia dominated Lionel Messi and company. A quiet first 55 minutes was ripped wide open by a Willy Caballero howler and Argentina just rolled over from there.
Croatia Dominate Argentina
The First Half
The first half was a very cagey affair. Croatia, much like Iceland, were content to let Argentina keep the ball and try and hit them on the counter. It seems to be a strategy that works very well against Argentina, which shouldn’t surprise anyone considering they started Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez in midfield.
Argentina held a 55-45 possession edge after the first half but were outshot by Croatia. Their possession mainly resulted in bad passes or turnovers in possession. However, they were able to build a couple of solid chances. Maxi Meza got a good shot off after an Eduardo Salvio cross, that was blocked by Dejan Lovren. And Enzo Perez missed an open net after Marcos Acuna forced a turnover in Croatia’s box.
Croatia’s counter-attacking approach led to some great chances. Ivan Perisic had his shot saved by Willy Caballero in the fifth minute, Mario Mandzukic missed an open header at the back post and Ante Rebic skied a shot from the top left of the box; one where he frankly should have done much better.
All in all, an even first half with plenty of give and take on both sides. It was the type of half where criticsm will rain depending on the results of the second.
The Second Half
Once the second half got underway, it became clear Sampaoli had made some mistakes. But none as big the mistake made by Willy Caballero. Caballero tried to chip a pass over Ante Rebic’s head. He instead chipped it right to Rebic who smashed it first time into the top of the net and quickly Croatia had a 1-0 lead.
Sampaoli responded immediately by bringing on Gonzalo Higuain and Christian Pavon. They didn’t make much difference. So Sampaoli decided to push all his chips in and bring Dybala on as well. However, none of the changes made much difference in the flow of the game. It continued to be loads of possession without much bite from either side, just with a different cast.
It took until the 80th minute for the next moment of brilliance, this time from Luka Modric, who put Argentina to bed. Modric controlled the ball at the top of the box, feigned one way, went the other, firing a beautiful curler into the bottom corner to give Croatia a 2-0 lead over Argentina.
What Comes Next
What is clear coming out of this game is that Croatia are a team to threaten for the World Cup title. Their midfield is playing outstandingly well, and they are getting the required work around it to thrive. They are a team full of great players and have their last game against Iceland to put a cherry on top. Meanwhile, Argentina are in trouble.
The Argentine players around Messi make decisions that can’t be made at the highest level. They are decisions that can be made at the levels below the highest level. They can be made in the Argentine league or the Portugese league or even against some weaker teams from the big European five. But not on the world’s stage; not at the World Cup can they make these decisions.
Ronaldo, Neymar, Messi, Suarez; they need strong systems around them to win at the World Cup. Fernando Santos built the ideal system around Cristiano Ronaldo, and we have all seen the results. Jorge Sampaoli could not build the right system around Lionel Messi. But he has his last game against Nigeria to try and save their hopes.