Late in the second half as Argentina were desperately searching for a winner, winger Maximiliano Mesa did what Lionel Messi struggled to do all game: He wheeled away from three Croatian defenders and unleashed a shot, but defender Domagoj Vida slid in and blocked the shot.
The ball might have gone in had the 29-year-old not made a timely intervention.
Vida’s effort exemplified the commitment of Croatian players, who looked more hungry and determined to clinch three points.
Apart from the serenity with which they cut open Argentina’s backline, the Vatreni’s commitment without the ball was exemplary. It was epitomised more so by skipper Luca Modric, who delivered yet another Man-of-the-Match display.
Despite given the license to play in an advanced position and thread through balls wide and to striker Mario Mandzukic, Modric was instrumental in Argentina skipper Messi drawing a blank for the second consecutive time.
Nullifying Messi was not a one-man job. The Croats walked on the pitch with a plan too. “In the first half when Argentina had the ball we cut off Messi and stopped him getting the ball,” Modric said.
For all of his deft touches, long-range shots, pin-point passes, and the goals, one of the less talked about facets of Modric is what he gives the team without the ball.
Over the last three years, Real Madrid have reaped the rewards for his versatility. That too, with the 32-year-old probably entering what might be his last leg of an illustrious career. Remember, he struggled to pin down a place in the starting XI during his first season at Santiago Bernabeu.
During the big nights, the diminutive midfielder’s vision and ability to control the midfield has turned into such a regular sight that he is now hailed as one of the best of his generation. He came into the showpiece event on the back of being one of the vital cogs of a side that won three consecutive Champions League titles.
Those big nights may have shaped him for Thursday, which will surely go down as one of the highlights of his international career of 109 matches. Croatia have progressed to the knockout stages with minimum fuss. Modric got the handbrake at work against Nigeria. Playing against a one-dimensional attack looking to break at pace, the man from Zadar slowed the pace of the game down.
What followed during the game didn’t make for pretty viewing but it was effective to frustrate the African outfit, who failed to create an attack of note through the game.
Everything Argentina were not, Croatia were
Against Argentina, he not only created enough chances he also controlled the midfield to ensure that Messi and the Argentine forward line didn’t get the ball enough.
It could have been tempting for Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic to field an unchanged XI at Nizhny. Why upset a winning combination? To counter Argentina throwing extra bodies in midfield in what turned out to be a an ill-advised move to play a 3-4-3, Dalic sacrificed forward Andrej Kramaric and replaced him with midfielder Marcelo Brozovic.
With veterans Modric and Ivan Rakitic at their disposal, along with Brozovic, Croatia were getting the measure of their opponents in the middle of the park. With Messi and Kun Aguero taken out of the game, their frustrations only grew.
A weak backline and and a tentative goalkeeper only compounded Argentina’s woes; those chinks would go on to play a key role in all the three goals. Croatia won the midfield battle by some distance. Not only was Modric the better player over the two sides, but the Argentinians were crowded out and outnumbered in the middle.
The blows from hell
It might have been a fatal chip from Willy Caballero that led to Ante Rebic’s opener, which came off a brilliant first-time volley. The second was Modric’s shooting prowess in full flow. The Croatia captain had two men in front of him. He took a touch, teased them with a dummy, took another touch before thumping the ball home from 25 yards out.
Rakitic twisted the knife with a third from close range but the damage was already done. They had other clear-cut chances in the game too. Just imagine had they converted those. “We created three chances in the first half, these were sitters. (Ivan) Perisic in the left channel, (Mario) Mandzukic’s was harder to miss than to score, and Rebic,” Modric said.
There was a stark contrast to the way the two sides set themselves up. All of Argentina’s play had to flow through Messi, something they failed miserably at from kick-off. Even with Modric, there were other avenues through which Croatia’s played flowed through. Ivan Perisic was a livewire on the right flank. Mario Mandzukic was a magnificent presence upfront.
Quietly confident with a world class midfield at their disposal, and the ability to devastatingly switch from defence to attack, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Croatia and their “golden generation” can match Davor Suker and Co’s third-place finish from 1998.