FIFA World Cup 2018: Lionel Messi denied oxygen, midfield put on masterclass; how Croatia gave Argentina a footballing lesson

In Thursday's match between Croatia and Argentina at the Nizhny Novgorod stadium, one player wearing the number 10 jersey and bearing the initials LM turned up. And his name was not Lionel Messi (inspiration for the lede: Anonymous, WhatsApp). Instead, it was a diminutive Croatian who grabbed the man of the match and the headlines — Luka Modric. Surely the most complete midfielder of his generation, Modric ran the show as Croatia gave Argentina a footballing lesson and handed them their heaviest defeat (3-0) in the group stage of the World Cup in the last 60 years.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: Lionel Messi denied oxygen, midfield put on masterclass; how Croatia gave Argentina a footballing lesson

Croatia's Luka Modric scores their second goal, against Argentina. Reuters

At the centre of three-peat UEFA Champions League champions Real Madrid, Luka Modric is surely the jewel of this talented Croatian ball-playing midfield. Yesterday, he lined up to take on the Argentines alongside players from some of the choicest clubs in the world: Ivan Rakitic from Barcelona, and Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic from Inter Milan; the last one had grabbed his chance as a substitute against Nigeria to make the starting XI in this match. With Mandzukic up front, Croatia’s pointy end was pretty sharp, but doubts were present at the other (defensive) end.

In a compelling first half punctuated by defensive mistakes, the score somehow ended 0-0. Argentina had lined up in a 3-4-3 formation with a pretty porous defence. What was worse, the three were centrebacks — Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi with Gabriel Mercado and Nicolas Tagliafico for company — and had no support in the wide areas of the pitch. Normally, when club sides set up 3-4-3, width and defensive support are provided by wingbacks, who constantly bomb up and down the pitch. Here, the ones who were supposed to play that role for Argentina were Eduardo Savio and Marcos Acuna, who are wingers for their respective clubs. This lack of support, that too against a skilled team such as Croatia, was a glaring error; unsurprisingly, Croatia often raided wide areas to wreak havoc in the shambolic Argentine defence.

In terms of chances, both teams were roughly level in the first half. In the early exchanges, Ivan Perisic was in the thick of things, exploiting the empty spaces in the wide areas. Argentina, in spite of having less defensive support, were attempting to play the ball out of midfield. They almost paid the price in the 20th minute, with Mandzukic almost catching Tagliafico in possession. Ominous signs. Though the Argentines were porous defensively, they had chances in attack. At the other end, the Croatians did their best Argentine defence impression as chaos reigned at the half-hour mark. Thankfully, Enzo Perez put it wide. In just a couple of minutes, an unmarked Mandzukic beat the offside trap with his run from deep and headed a cross wide, much to Willy Caballero’s relief. Given his heading ability, he should have done better.

In the dying moments of the first half, Modric produced a breathtaking curved pass which cut through the Argentine defence and put Rebic through. Fortunately for La Albiceleste, Rebic’s run was undone by an ordinary first touch, and with players rushing towards him, he had to go for glory while he totally missed an animated Perisic who was free at the right-hand edge of the box. Overall, it was an entertaining first half with Croatia’s midfield growing into the ascendancy in terms of influence. On chances and scoreline though, it was even-steven.

In the second half, Croatia’s midfield class was telling. They toyed with Argentina, denying Messi his vital oxygen. Modric would admit as much in the post-match conference: “This result and Argentina's poor display was due to our good game, our compact block all over the pitch, particularly when we didn't have the ball”. Still, Croatia needed the first goal to show their full range of passing.

In the 53rd minute, Aguero ran on to a pass, spun around the defender and shot directly at the goalkeeper. Almost immediately, a launched Croatian ball created a brief flutter in the Argentine backline. Mercado’s routine backpass seemed to have put the issue to rest, but it was inexplicably cleared in a tame manner by Caballero, who ended up gently lobbing the ball to an onrushing Rebic. Though he had to stretch, the onrushing Rebic made no mistake, putting the ball past the keeper. Elsewhere, Karius and De Gea would have sighed in relief; they no longer had the most meme-worthy goalkeeping blooper of the year.

The goal seemed to have liberated Croatia, and they started running circles around Argentina at high intensity. The referee was a busy man after this goal, showing the yellow card no less than five times after this. Still, Croatia weren’t entirely leak-proof in defence; in the 64th minute, Perez released Higuain on the left, who then cut the ball back for Meza. A goalmouth scramble ensued, and the situation was defused by Rakitic.

With ten minutes to go, Modric put the match to bed when he got the ball at the edge of the area, evaded Otamendi twice, unleashed a fierce shot past Caballero, and ran with both arms aloft to celebrate with joyous teammates and supporters. This peach of a goal was reminiscent of his long-range belter against Manchester United in the 2013 UEFA Champions League in Alex Ferguson’s farewell season. This one against Argentina would have no doubt evoked pleasant memories of that goal which turned his Real Madrid career around from the “worst signing of 2012” to midfield lynchpin. Clearly frustrated by the goal, Otamendi shockingly smashed the ball close to Rakitic’s face while the latter was on the ground, escaping with just a yellow; on another day, the colour of the card would have been different.

Rakitic would have the last laugh though. He rattled the bar from the ensuing freekick, and a few minutes later, rubbed salt into the Argentine wounds with his goal. Though his initial shot was palmed away by Caballero, it was straight in substitute’ Kovacic's path, and Kovacic coolly passed the ball back to the unchallenged Rakitic, who had enough time to pick his spot to score the third. The reason why Argentina didn’t challenge Rakitic was that they were desperately looking for the offside flag; in reality, they had already waved the white flag. Argentina’s campaign is in dire straits and they are possibly staring at a first round exit. They are heavily dependent on other results to go their way in what is possibly Messi’s last World cup.

With this victory, Croatia have qualified for the next round. Can Croatia dream again, in the manner of their late ‘90s dream team? Are they as good as the players who won the 1987 FIFA Youth Championships, impressed in the 1996 Euro, and nabbed the third place 20 years ago? Their midfield is world-class and a matchup against Spain should have some of the best ball players on the planet (they won this match in the 2016 Euros), should they meet later in the tournament. But they lack depth beyond their first team, and fatigue may be a telling factor. Those chasing history in this batch will do well to remember that Portugal edged them in extra time the 2016 Euros in a dull encounter. They need to master these moments in the knockout stage to leave behind a legacy.

Updated Date: Jun 22, 2018 13:23:17 IST