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Argentina on brink of exit after stunning 3-0 loss to Croatia

There was an air of expectation around Nizhny Novgorod that this will be Lionel Messi’s night. Argentina fans had packed the venue, making it a cauldron of noise for their match against Croatia.

They had sang all the way from the train station to the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium hoping that Messi and Argentina will kick-start their World Cup campaign in Russia. Argentina’s 1-1 draw in their Group ‘D’ opener against Iceland hadn’t dampened their spirits.

At the end, though, all that noise, that enthusiasm was gone; their hopes of seeing Messi lift the World Cup trophy in Russia have gone down drastically.

Instead, it was a section of Croatian fans whose voice echoed around the stadium. Even if they win their last match against Nigeria, it wouldn’t be enough for Argentina.

On a night when Messi failed to turn up, a massive howler by goalkeeper Willy Caballero early in the second half potentially sealed Argentina’s fate.

A sensational solo goal from Luka Modric and another from Ivan Rakitic late on saw Croatia stun Argentina 3-0 and seal their place in the last-16.

Messi and Argentina now need to rely on other results go through. This was a debilitating, humiliating defeat for Argentina. How they recover from this remains to be seen.

Jorge Sampaoli had rung the changes following the Iceland stalemate and Argentina were set up to press Croatia high.

But the lack of quality players at the back meant they would’ve been exposed on the counter and they were in the fifth minute; goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s fingertip save denying Ivan Perisic from opening the scoring after the Croat was given both space and time to run in from the left.

On the other end, Sampaoli’s high press was working. Argentina were nicking the ball off Croatia, who had won 2-0 against Nigeria in their opening match, in good spaces.

Messi almost had his moment 12 minutes in, his outstretched leg missing a delightful lob from Enzo Perez by inches.

A minute later, Croatian Dejan Lovren had to be alert to block Eduardo Salvio’s shot after Argentina had opened up Croatia again.

The opening exchanges had set the tone for a open contest. Croatia’s midfield trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic began exerting control.

Croatia’s buildup was neat, Argentina were still looking for Messi to do something but Sampaoli would’ve been encouraged to see that Salvio, Marcos Acuna and Maximiliano Meza were taking some burden off Messi with some incisive running.

An attack from the left almost saw them take the lead on the half hour mark. Croatia’s defence was all over the place when Salvio cut the ball back for Perez. With the goal at his mercy, Croatia goalkeeper Daniel Subasic not even in his line of sight, he shot wide.

It was a chance that stung Croatia into action and two minutes later, Sime Vrsaljko curled in a tantalising cross at the far post for Mario Mandzukic, who headed wide with just Caballero to beat.

It was such an absorbing encounter that even halftime couldn’t break the tempo. Ante Rebic had ran endlessly in the first half and he got his reward in eight minutes in.

Caballero tried to chip a backpass to Gabriel Mercado but instead ended up looping it up for Rebic who smashed in an unstoppable volley.

More than ever, Argentina now needed that moment of Messi magic. Only last-ditch defending from his Barca team-mate Rakitic denied Messi a chance to score in the 63rd.

Sampaoli and Argentina were feeling the pressure. A World Cup exit was staring them in the face. Having already sent Gonzalo Higuain in for Sergio Aguero immediately after Croatia’s goal, he threw on Paulo Dybala, the man long touted to be Messi’s successor in the Argentina squad.

It was Croatia, however, who scored 10 minutes from time. Modric picked the ball at some distance from the goal and ran past Nicolas Otamendi before sending in a rifling shot from the edge of the box past Caballero.

Rakitic piled on the misery when he scored in injury time after a blistering counter-attack. Messi, stone-faced, slunk away. The players and the team that had turned up on the night could now celebrate.

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