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Croatia 3, Argentina 0

Group D, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod

In supreme fashion, Croatia ran through Argentina on Friday, 3-0, to earn a spot in the World Cup’s knockout round for just the second time as an independent nation. The Blazers world-class midfield completed 289 passes, dominated defensively and, after a sloppy and scoreless first half, pierced and demoralized Argentina — four years ago a World Cup finalist — in the second.

Goal Croatia!

So, these guys are legit.

In added time, the Blazers schooled Argentina down the field after a poor corner kick. Ivan Rakitic took a shot from 10 yards out that was saved by Caballero, but Croatia was all over the rebound. Rakitic took a pass back a the top of the six-yard box and calmly deposited the ball in the net.

Goal Croatia!

A wonder strike from Luka Modric in the 80th minute will likely seal Croatia’s victory over Argentina and a spot in the knockout round. After a turnover at midfield, the Blazers beat the Argentine defense back downfield and swung the ball to Modric 20-some yards from the goal. He made a couple moves, then curled a shot around Willy Caballero that sent his teammates in the technical area wild.

Yellow card to Croatia’s Vrsaljko

In the 67th minute.

Argentina are feet from equalizing

Gonzalo Higuain drove to the end line with the ball in the 64th minute and flipped a pass to the 6-yard box where Maximiliano Meza was cutting. His shot was saved by Subašić, the Croat keeper, and Messi got to the rebound. Subašić  made another save, knocking the ball out of bounds for a corner that went harmlessly.

Goal Croatia!

Oh, what a mistake! Caballero, Argentina’s keeper, duffed a clearing attempt Rebic was right there waiting and sent a volley through his silhouette. The Blazers take the lead in the 54th minute.

Broadcasters compared Caballero’s “clearance” to an alley-oop pass to Rebic’s slam dunk.

Wilfredo Caballero of Argentina looks dejected after his mistake leads to a Croatia goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Group D match between Argentina and Croatia. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Yellow card to Argentina’s Mercado

In the 51st minute.

Halftime: Argentina 0, Croatia 0

A frenzied, physical and, at times, sloppy first 45 minutes yielded plenty of scoring chances but no goal between Argentina and Croatia, which go to the half tied. In a two-minute stretch just past the midway mark of the half, Argentina’s Enzo Perez missed a wide open net after a miscommunication on the Croat back line. Then the Blazers’ Mario Mandžukić whiffed on a wide open header on a beautiful cross from Šime Vrsaljko.

Neither team can clinch a spot in the knockout round with a win Thursday, but Argentina is certainly more desperate for a victory after conceding a draw to Iceland last week. Croatia can take firm control of the group with a win after beating Nigeria to open the tournament.

Yellow card to Croatia’s Rebic

In the 40th minute.

Now Croatia misses a chance

Two minutes later, Šime Vrsaljko played a gorgeous ball toward the six-yard box for Mario Mandžukić who escaped his defender. But Mandžukić somehow couldn’t get his head to the ball, which skittered out of bounds. Both teams have had grade A chances. We’re still tied.

Argentina misses a wide open net

Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subašić was drawn out of his goal after a miscue in the Blazers’ back line in the 30th minute. That left Enzo Perez with the ball on his foot from 10 yards away without anyone in front of the goal and without a defender to pressure him.

Still, Perez rushed his attempt and sent it wide. We’re still scoreless as the game starts to open up.

Croatia creates the first chance

In the 5th minute, Ivan Perišić got in behind the Argentine defense and struck a hip-high shot from eight yards out that was blocked away by goalkeeper Willy Caballero. It’s an encouraging start for the Blazers that they can control the ball and get it behind defenders.

Diego Maradona kisses Messi jersey

Makes fans absolutely bonkers with excitement.

Pregame thoughts

What a treat this match should be. This Group D contest pits Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi of Argentina and Ivan Rakitic of Croatia. It’s the first meeting of the teams at the World Cup since 1998, where Argentina edged Croatia, 1-0. Argentina finds itself needing a victory after conceding a draw to Iceland in its first match. Croatia looked solid as it took care of Nigeria, 2-0. Both teams feel very comfortable playing with possession of the ball, which means counterattacks and set pieces will matter. Also, fouls: Messi missed a penalty, which led to that disappointing result against Iceland. Luka Modric finished his penalty attempt against Nigeria.

Argentina (0-1-0, 1 point)

  • Last World Cup showing: Runner-up, 2014.
  • Best finish: Champion, 1986, 1978.
  • Notable: Messi scored his first-ever international goal against Croatia in a 2006 friendly.
  • FIFA world ranking: 5. ELO world ranking: 6.

Croatia (1-0-0, 3 points)

  • Last World Cup showing: Group stage, 2014.
  • Best finish: Third place, 1998.
  • Notable: Croatia has played a South American opponent in each of its four previous World Cups. It is 0-4 in those matches.
  • FIFA world ranking: 20. ELO world ranking: 17.

Players to watch

For Argentina there is only one name: Messi. Messi, Messi, Messi. A World Cup victory could cement his legacy as the best-ever Argentine footballer, surpassing even Diego Maradona. And right now, after that missed penalty kick, he needs a big moment for redemption.

Croatian midfielder Luka Modric (Real Madrid) is a model of consistency and football IQ. Never too fast, never too slow, Croatia will look to him to feed a talented line of forwards. He finished his penalty attempt to seal a 2-0 win against Nigeria on Saturday.

What’s next

Argentina: vs. Nigeria in St. Petersburg, June 26, 2 p.m.

Croatia: vs. Iceland in Rostov-on-Don, June 26, 2 p.m.

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