Croatia pulled off an audacious upset of Argentina at the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Thursday and defeated the South Americans 3-0 to ascend to the top of Group D, assuring La Albiceleste can no longer finish first in the pool.
Ante Rebic capitalised on a Willy Caballero error to score Croatia's first before Luka Modric thundered in a second to seal Argentina's fate. Ivan Rakitic netted into an open goal in injury time to leave Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi with little hope of advancing in the tournament.
The Croats are temporarily five points clear of their competition and will now be runaway favourites to top their group after sealing a second win in as many outings in Russia.
Messi Must Learn From Ronaldo
In an all-too-familiar sequence of events for Argentina fans, Lionel Messi was little more than a spectator as his team's title hopes ebbed closer to nothingness, a sour sensation he's not used to feeling at Barcelona.
His club and international careers are in stark contrast to one another, at least in silverware success, and the Barca talisman would do well to learn from Real Madrid counterpart and longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo to change that.
Ronaldo has always been the self-imposed main attraction—whether it's for Portugal or Real—and if he isn't, he tends to find a way to make it so. Messi is different because he's more modest in his approach, except the stats from Thursday's first half showed that wasn't working out for him:
It speaks volumes that while Messi is yet to score at this tournament, Ronaldo is sitting pretty as the leading scorer, and it's not because Portugal's players are that far better than Argentina's.
So anonymous was the five-time Ballon d'Or winner in the opening 45 minutes against Croatia that pundit Alan Smith wondered where he was:
Pushed out of his favoured false-nine role and further out wide in a new-look Argentina formation, Messi's influence was greatly lessened, and he looked aghast at the idea of leaving his hub at times.
Compare that with Ronaldo, the man with so much self-belief in every minute he plays that he'll drop as deep as he likes or push as far as he desires if he believes it will get him where he needs to be. He's likely the best player on any pitch he steps on, and he knows it.
While Messi perhaps isn't as suited to those game-changing moments, like long-range goals and headers, he would have done better to play by his own rules more against Croatia. However, there was plenty of blame to be shared by his subpar team-mates:
Hampered by his manager's tactics, perhaps, but if Messi is to ever add to his international trophy cabinet, he needs to shirk his unselfish ways and engineer things around himself in Argentina colours, no matter how at odds it is with his usual character.
Unfortunately, as he prepares to celebrate his 31st birthday on Sunday, he may be about to miss his last chance to do so at a World Cup finals.
Jorge Sampaoli's Tactics Are at the Core of Argentina's Struggles
Football is ultimately executed by the players on the pitch, but the extent to which they're able to unlock their own potential is decided by managers, and in this case, Jorge Sampaoli must accept a big portion of the blame for Argentina's demise.
Now on the verge of exiting the tournament at the first hurdle, he made three changes to the XI that drew against Iceland and quite substantially altered his formation. As noted by the Independent's Miguel Delaney, it didn't quite work out:
More explicitly, UNILAD highlighted how using Marcos Acuna and Eduardo Salvio as wing-backs—players who have hardly played those positions in their careers—was a very poor decision:
The call was exposed by the lack of cohesion behind central back three Nicolas Otamendi, Nicolas Tagliafico and Gabriel Mercado, who were taken advantage of time and again due to the lack of cover.
Sampaoli's drastic changes felt like an overreaction to the draw against Iceland, as if such a result was an infringement on he and Argentina's ego, but writer Roy Nemer brought the side back down to Earth:
As for the Messi debate, his misuse by Sampaoli is just the icing on the cake alongside the fact that Paulo Dybala has been under-utilised in Russia, as journalist Godfred Akato Boafo mused:
Gonzalo Higuain instantly brought improvement off the bench and perhaps should have started in a two alongside Sergio Aguero, whom he replaced. Meanwhile, Ever Banega could have been the link man that Messi ended up trying to be.
Overall, Argentina's loss reeked of players being wedged into a formation that didn't suit the talents at hand, rather than a formation being set to fit the abilities of those present. It's what Sampaoli got so right during his time in charge of Chile, which makes it all the more shocking to see it go so wrong with La Albiceleste.
Croatia Deserve Victory but Must Solve Miscommunication Mistakes
Croatia were every bit the deserving victors after cleaning up some of their earlier jitters on Thursday, but that doesn't mean manager Zlatko Dalic comes away without his own lessons to learn.
One key aspect they'll need to address in training this week were the miscommunications in defence and midfield, one of which almost gave Enzo Perez Argentina's breakthrough, via Fox Soccer (U.S. only):
The opportunity came after Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren decided shepherding the ball to goalkeeper Danijel Subasic was the best option despite being feet from his own goal. He was lucky to not see Perez punish him:
Then there were other small slips and failures to take control of situations, mostly inside their own half, errors that would have been snapped up by a more lethal opponent.
In that sense, Croatia have something to heed heading back to training, although the Liverpool Echo's James Pearce was right to hail Lovren's recovery into one of his side's better players:
Subasic also responded well to the earlier scares, as did Croatia's other centre-back, Besiktas defender Domagoj Vida.
In a way, those improvements could almost be seen as positives, signs their players are capable of rallying in spite of such big opposition, although manager Dalic would likely prefer to see the mistakes omitted altogether.
Argentina close their Group D campaign in a must-win meeting with Nigeria on Tuesday, the same day that Croatia are scheduled to face dark horses Iceland in their final fixture of the pool phase.
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