Argentina are on the brink of a humiliating group stage exit at the 2018 World Cup after losing a gripping battle to Croatia on Thursday night.
After a goalless first half the Croats took the lead in farcical circumstances after a miskick from Willy Caballero went straight to Ante Rebic, who found the roof of the net with a crisp first-time volley.
Luka Modric then crashed home a powerful effort from 25 yards out into the bottom corner to leave Lionel Messi and Co needing results in the final group games to go their way to stand a chance of making the last 16.
The result in Nizhny gives Croatia six points from two matches and puts Argentina’s knockout hopes in serious jeopardy after collecting just one point from their first two matches, needing to win their final game and some outside help to get out of the group stage.
And it was goals from Ante Rebic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic that did the South Americans in after a wonderful performance from the Croatian side on the night.
Willy Caballero was called into action after just five minutes, getting down well to just push wide an Ivan Perisic low drive.
Lionel Messi nearly got on the end of a sumptuous lobbed ball into the box two minutes later, but his outstretched toe could not reach it with Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic caught in no-man’s land.
Argentina worked their best chance of the opening quarter-hour on 13 minutes when Maximiliano Meza was found free in the middle of the box but his low shot was well-blocked by a sliding Croatia defender. Enzo Perez was unlucky not to score in the 30th minute when confusion in the box led to the ball rolling onto his left foot in the middle of the box but he somehow fired well wide of the post with Subasic out of position.
Mario Mandzukic returned the favour three minutes later — his diving header from a tight angle badly missing the mark after being left completely unmarked at the far post.
Rebic then received a yellow card for an inadvertent stomp on Eduardo Salvio near the sideline, with Sampaoli and Argentine players calling for a red to be given for the dangerous nature of the challenge.
Rebic was at fault for wasting a wonderful cross-field pass from Modric just before the half — his poor first touch forcing him into half-hearted shot from 25 yards after being played in behind the Argentine back line.
Gabriel Mercado received a yellow just after the break for a cynical tackle to stop Rebic from breaking through the midfield.
Sergio Aguero forced a save in the 53rd minute with a quick turn and shot from the left of the box but it was Croatia who were celebrating their opener seconds later after a Caballero blunder handed the active Rebic a golden chance.
The Chelsea keeper’s attempted scooped pass over Rebic fell directly to the winger, who sensationally volleyed over Caballero to give his side a deserved lead.
Rebic came off with an injury soon after and Argentina fans whistled their disapproval when Aguero made way for Gonzalo Higuain in the 64th.
The Argentines, though, went close seconds later when Meza’s shot at the near post was well-saved by Subasic, who was quick to turn away a second attempt by Messi from a tight angle.
Mandzukic looked to have bagged a second two minutes later but it was Modric who wonderfully completed the task in the 80th minute — the Real Madrid man firing home from with a remarkable curling shot from outside the box.
Rakitic then completed the rout in second-half-stoppage time — the Barcelona man passing past Caballero after the Argentine defence gave up on the play in their own box.
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