Group D has been thrown wide open at the World Cup, with Croatia producing a ruthless display to dispatch Argentina in a 3-0 victory.
Ivan Perisic had the first chance of the game within five minutes, getting on the end of a long pass down the left and hitting a low drive towards the bottom corner, which was saved well by Willy Caballero.
Argentina were unsettled at the back and allowed Croatia to come onto them, with a number of strangely loose passes in defence almost gifting the Vatreni an opening goal.
Zlatko Dalić’s side broke the deadlock in spectacular fashion though, with Caballero making a meal of a routine ball back to him, lifting it up for Ante Rebic who rifled a stunning volley back over the Chelsea goalkeeper’s head and into the net.
Captain Luka Modric scored a terrific second with 10 minutes to play, firing from distance and watching his shot bend into the net.
Ivan Rakitic nearly had a third minutes later when he whipped a free kick onto the crossbar, but the Barcelona midfielder found his goal in added time, with Argentina helpless to Croatia’s counter attack, allowing Rakitic to pass into a vacant net.
Code red for Argentina
La Albiceleste were widely tipped to top Group D coming into the tournament and advance through to the knockout stages without too much drama, but the group has been flipped on its head.
After a draw in their opening match against Iceland, Jorge Sampaoli’s side needed to respond, and they did not deliver to their manager or their travelling supporters at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.
Their defending was shambolic at times – seeming to lose communication too often around their own penalty box, while they were unable to keep tabs on Mario Mandzukic’s physical presence, as well as the intelligence of the likes of Perisic, Modric and Rakitic behind him.
Danijel Subasic was barely forced into a save throughout the entire match, with Argentina’s midfield breaking down and losing the ball before failing to track back and regain possession.
Lionel Messi and company lacked the energy and cutting edge that saw them into the final in Brazil in 2014, and they are now left in a rather precarious position.
In order to advance, they will be hoping that Nigeria can steal points from Iceland before facing them in their final group clash and requiring nothing other than a win.
Should Nigeria fail to do this, it will prove a near impossible task for the Argentines, who will need to win big in order to recover goal difference.
Troubled times lie ahead for Argentinian football, but this period will test their resolve as a team, and they certainly have enough quality to turn it around.
Croatia a potential dark horse
In every major tournament there is always a Cinderella story. At Euro 2016 it was Iceland, and it was Costa Rica’s run to the last eight in Brazil 2014. Now, it seems like it could be Croatia’s turn.
Two wins from two, five goals scored and none conceded – Zlatko Dalic has his team playing some of the best football in the tournament, and there is no reason why they cannot ride their momentum and go very far.
Beating Argentina is difficult as it is, but to smash three goals past them and play them off the park is entirely different, and shows the quality and spirit within the team.
As a squad, they are very well rounded and have quality in all areas, and with the added magic of world-class talent like Modric and Rakitic, the rest of the team picks up around them.
Croatia bossed the midfield for the entire 90 minutes, with Marcelo Brozovic holding down the base, plus Modric and Rakitic being free to roam in front of him and link up with the attackers .
Up front, Rebic’s energy matched with Perisic’s class and Mandzukic’s physical prowess makes theirs a very difficult forward line to handle, due to the variety of ways in which they can hurt an opposition.
The old cliché “as long as they are in it, they can win it” rings true, and Croatia should back themselves to make a memorable run in the competition.
Finalists continue to struggle
Should Argentina fail to qualify through the group stages, this will be the third World Cup in a row in which at least one of the finalists of the previous tournament has not made the knockout stages.
In 2014 Spain packed their bags early, while in 2010, both Italy and France went home in disgrace after fighting for the ultimate prize four years earlier.
With Germany losing their opening match, too, it could be a repeat of South Africa where neither finalist advances, and poses a question of complacency among the higher-ranked teams in international football.
Perhaps there is a change of the guard slowly beginning to take shape, or perhaps the powerhouse countries are beginning to come into the World Cup thinking that it will be smooth sailing until the latter stages.
But whatever it is, it can only be good for football and adds excitement and drama to the tournament that captivates the entire world.