Argentina vs Croatia: Jorge Sampaoli gets big calls wrong, Willy Caballero fluffs his lines and Luka Modric builds bridges

Ed Malyon,Lawrence Ostlere
Friday 22 June 2018 00:09
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Argentina Iceland warm-ups

Croatia put themselves in pole position in Group D after beating Argentina with an impressive performance in Nizhny Novgorod.

Ante Rebic pounced on a dreadful mistake by Argentina’s goalkeeper Willy Caballero before Luka Modric made sure of the three points with a wonderful curling finish. Ivan Rakitic added a late third to add the gloss.

Here are five things we learned:

The Argentinian invasion

Four years ago their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ was the soundtrack to Brazil 2014, a reworked ditty that poked fun at their hosts but which ultimately met a sad ending at the Maracana as Gonzalo Higuain’s radar went haywire and Argentina lost the final to Germany.

In Russia the songs are different but the passion is the same. Tens of thousands of miles from home, the travelling support from Argentina has been remarkable both in terms of numbers and noise.

They filled the streets of Moscow and took over Spartak Stadium for their opener against Iceland to the extent that Hiemir Halgrimsson complained in his press conference about how they’d been able to procure so many tickets. Had Iceland brought as many fans as Argentina there might have been nobody left in Reykjavik!

In Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday and Thursday it was the same, a city overtaken by an invasion from the Rio de La Plata basin. Jorge Sampaoli’s side have rarely looked like paying back their affection with the performances they deserve but whatever happens, they know they’ll continue to travel over land and sea to watch their team.

Sampaoli finds wrong side of thin line between bravery and stupidity

This is a man with almost no neck but considerable balls.

Jorge Sampaoli’s bold decisions didn’t come off

Sampaoli has always prioritised the collective over individuals and that is what brought him so much success in the past but Argentina has presented a new challenge, with the main objective being to work out a way to get the whole team built around Lionel Messi.

After such a disappointing display against Iceland in their opener, Sampaoli has ripped up the playbook. He was always going to make changes for this game and had planned for a different strategy when scheming for this tournament back at Argentina’s Ezeiza training base on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

But this team is different to those long-lost thoughts. Enzo Perez, Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Tagliafico, Maxi Meza and Marcos Acuña are not exactly household names but they were selected ahead of a raft of superstars on the bench, including Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala, Giovani Lo Celso and Ever Banega. Then there’s Cristian Pavón, arguably Argentina’s most dangerous-looking player not called Messi in the first game.

It was bold – but the line between bravery and stupidity is narrow. Sampaoli fell onto the wrong side of it on a night when he called for the big names after the no-marks had failed to fire. It was as poor a display as you could have ever expected from Argentina and the likes of Perez – not even in the 23-man squad until Manuel Lanzini’s injury – were found wanting. Meza simply did not have the required quality while Dybala sat tapping his toes.

Sampaoli’s gamble didn’t pay off but it wasn’t ever close to doing so. His decisions were bold but they were bad. And now his side sit on the brink of elimination.

Argentina’s back-three failed

Here Sampaoli switched from the 4-2-3-1 against Iceland to a 3-4-3, always an alarming sign early in a tournament. It left Argentina wildly unprotected in wide areas, something Croatia quickly recognised.

Ivan Rakitić impressed in the heart of midfield

Argentina had several warnings during the first half as Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic made headway either side of their back three, and in the end it was a raking cross-field pass which set Sampaoli’s defence scrambling to retreat which led to Rebic’s goal.

At half-time, BBC pundit Cesc Fabregas explained that switching to a back-three takes a lot of work on the training ground. He should know, as part of the Chelsea team under Antonio Conte which made the transition and sparked their Premier League-winning run. Argentina qualified almost exclusively using a back four – this was not the moment for Sampaoli to ask his side new questions.

Caballero fluffs his lines

Willy Caballero made a horrendous mistake to create Rebic’s crucial goal, totally mishitting his pass so that it spooned up in the air for Rebic to volley sweetly under the bar.

This was supposed to finally be the 36-year-old goalkeeper’s big opportunity on the major stage, having missed out four years ago when he felt he should have been Argentina’s No 1. But his mistake here was one of someone who has barely played this season, instead spending much of it on Chelsea’s bench watching Thibaut Courtois.

Argentina are now on the brink of elimination in Russia and Caballero is unlikely to get another opportunity, either at Chelsea or on in an international tournament.

Modric builds bridges

Much of the talk in Croatia in the build-up to this World Cup was about Luka Modric, who has a possible jail sentence looming over him over perjury charges.

Luka Modric scored Croatia’s brilliant second

Many in Croatia have been uneasy with the Real Madrid star wearing the captain’s armband, regardless of the fact that he is their outstanding player. But football is a famously fickle business and his spectacular goal coupled with such a passionate celebration afterwards, grabbing at his Croatian shirt, may have placated some of his critics.

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