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Argentina Staring into the Abyss after Croatia Defeat

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June 22, 2018
Croatia humbled Argentina 3-0 in Group D

June 21st, the summer solstice, is the longest day of the year but that honour belonged to June 20th as far as this column is concerned. The mere thought that today’s action could even come close to repeating the tedium that was Wednesday was a source of considerable unease. So it was a pleasant shock bordering on euphoria to sit, watch and enjoy an excellent opening game between Denmark and Australia, a thoroughly delicious 1-1 draw. Yes, VAR was to the fore again and the decision wasn’t exactly clear-cut but it’s here and we might as well make peace with it for the time being.

Peru saw their dream shatter before their eyes as they failed to do enough to get even one past a France side that shone in the first half before fading in the second. Speaking of shattered dreams, step forward Argentina. They looked bad in their opening game against Iceland but they plumbed new depths of despair in this total defeat to Croatia. Every potential problem in the team that was flagged pre-tournament was made flesh in this match. There was nothing from the ‘keeper up through defence and midfield that had the smell or look of a decent team. Looking at it objectively, maybe two of Argentina’s starting 11 would have made Croatia’s starting line-up and, in the end, the better team won. In addition to beating Nigeria, they’ll have to rely on a favourable result in the other match to see their way through to the knock-out stage.

Argentina 0-3 Croatia

Jorge Sampaoli shuffled his deck to a large degree coming into this do-or-die tie – would it be enough to get the best out of the team or would it be musical chairs on the Titanic? Messi led his team out knowing that the expectation of every Argentine was pressing firmly down on his slender shoulders; for a man who has done so much for his country, it wasn’t enough in the eyes of many of his compatriots who seemed to be of a ‘Yeah but what have you done for me today’ mindset. The strain of it all was palpable before a ball had been kicked and Croatia must have been licking their lips.

The first 10 minutes saw little of Messi on the ball but plenty of dicey Argentina defending as their wing-backs pushed high up the pitch leaving acres of space for Croatia to target on the flanks. Argentina looked committed to attacking, however, and to hell with the consequences. They worked a lovely ball into the box but the goal-ward bound shot was cleared over the bar by Lovren and that was just about the clearest chance they had all half. Initially, Croatia had a much clearer pattern of play, everyone seeming to know their roles and what it is they were trying to do – Marcelo Brozovic seemed to be tasked with keeping close to Messi at most times – but they looked to be affected by the malaise that was infecting their opponents.

Neither Messi nor Luka Modric were able to influence proceedings to any appreciable degree and, amidst a flurry of terrible tackles, the half petered out to a scoreless conclusion. Croatia were the happier of the two teams, knowing that they already had a win in the bag from the opening round of games. The onus was on Argentina to try and do something, anything, to turn the mess into something beautiful that they could hang their hat on.

Sadly for them, an appalling error did for Argentina on 53 minutes. Willy Caballero managed to make an absolute hash of a pass to his centre back and Ante Rebic volleyed it over his head and into the net. With half an hour to go, Gonzalo Higuain and Cristian Pavon came on to try and turn the tide. Argentina looked shapeless and, worse still, hopeless. They were a mess all over the pitch and even though the introduction of Paolo Dybala was a positive one which lifted some of the load for Messi, it wasn’t enough.

With just under 10 minutes left, Modric put the game to bed. Croatia broke and the ball was played to Modric in a central position outside the box. In front of him was Nicolas Otamendi and Modric fancied his chances. He turned one way, checked, turned the other and let loose with his right foot, the ball curling wickedly through the air and past the despairing hands of Caballero. From there, it was done. Croatia, with the result safe in the bag, looked as if they wanted to make a statement and put some further hurt on Argentina and they did. In additional time, Croatia again swarmed forward and with only a few Argentina players labouring slowly after them, a parried shot was passed to Raktic who had enough to time light up a fag and smoke it before coolly slotting home. The destruction was complete.

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Denmark 1-1 Australia

The match was only six minutes old when Australia were punished for not clearing the ball sufficiently. It made its way to Christian Eriksen who smashed the ball home with no little finesse to put the Danes into a very early lead. It was beautiful strike from one of the finest players in the game and Australia looked stunned. Denmark kept the pressure on them and fashioned some decent chances looking dangerous as they went but, much like in their match against Peru, they fell away and slowed down.

This afforded Australia the opportunity to gradually work their way back into the game, looking after the ball to a greater extent and keeping Denmark on the back foot. Following yet another corner, Denmark cleared the ball but the Socceroos were calling for a handball. Nothing strange there, you might think and that was certainly the referee’s take on it as he waved play on but 20 seconds later, the official called a stop to play and jogged over to take a look at the video – VAR had struck again. And, as has so often happened, the referee concurred with the tape and pointed back up the pitch for a penalty to Australia. As he did in their match against France, Mile Jedinak stepped up and put it past Kasper Schmeichel in the Denmark goal. It was honours-even with just over 35 minutes of play.

A very entertaining first half was brought to a close. Australia scored from a penalty for the second game in a row but they were creating chances from open play and were the ascendant side going in at the break. Denmark, though, struggled to make anything happen for themselves after the opening spell and required a shift in personality on they were to harvest anything from the second half.

Both sides came out of the blocks in the second half, Denmark showing a good deal more urgency than in the first. With the game stretched, there was more space for Australia to attack and, though they rarely forced Schmeichel into difficult saves, they were causing plenty of problems. Eriksen was uncharacteristically sloppy with his passing and this tended to knock most of the impetus from their attacks. One of Australia’s main attacking threat, Andrew Nabbout, had to go off with a painful shoulder injury and one feared for their attacking threat in his absence. For all their dominance in attack, Australia still hadn’t put Denmark to bed and with time running out, they needed something to show for their efforts.

With time running out, it looked as if Denmark were about to claim a result that they scarcely deserved for the second game running. Eriksen had barely featured in the second 45 and without him, most of Denmark’s play went through Pione Sisto but the diminutive winger was often guilty of slowing play down and losing possession. In the end, Denmark’s lack of threat didn’t count against them as Australia couldn’t punish them for it. Four points from two games is an excellent return for Denmark who can practically smell the knock-out rounds. Australia aren’t out of it though and still have something to play for in their final game against Peru.

France 1-0 Peru

France made it two wins from two games after beating Peru

France boss, Didier Deschamps, decided to shuffle his pack and go back to what he knows with a 4-2-3-1 set-up that had Olivier Giroud up top, a tacit acknowledgement that his attacking triumvirate from the opening game wasn’t fit for purpose. For Peru, their main man and goal threat, Paolo Guerrero, played from the off and with him on the pitch, you felt that Peru were in with a shout.

Even with the change in formation, France’s opening 15 minutes was loose enough, up until Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante began to exert themselves in the middle of the park. Peru got themselves into what was quite a fractious opening but couldn’t really manufacture the chances to trouble Hugo Lloris. Still, it was positive stuff from the South Americans but France were looking quite composed. They were winning the ball high up the pitch and one of these occasions led to the opening goal as Kylian Mbappe slotted home a bobbling ball from two yards out. Nice work if you can get it.

It was an engaging performance by both sides and thoroughly enjoyable. Peru were having difficulties linking up with Guerrero effectively but it was France who had the lead and deservedly so. Worryingly for Peru, Giroud and Antoinne Griezmann were linking up effectively and Mbappe was a constant threat wide on the right. Peru had a conundrum; they needed to attack more in the second half but that would leave them open to Mbappe’s rapier-like attack.

As it transpired, the second half was more intense than the first but it was mainly Peru doing all the work with France relatively content to sit and absorb. When you have a player of the quality of Kante stalking the middle of the park, it’s not that dangerous a gambit. Pogba, too, was impressive in that mode, intercepting passes and keeping his position well but his influence was less pronounced than in the first and he was careless with his passing. That didn’t stop Peru firing off a couple of good shots from distance but again Lloris was left relatively untroubled in goal. They just didn’t have enough guile in the final third to make their pressure count.

The ref blew for full time and Peru had once again lost to 1-0 score line. Whatever they think about this game, they will likely be kicking themselves over the match that got away – that loss to Denmark may well rankle for years to come because it was one that they could have won. But that was it, the end of their World Cup journey. A kind assessment of France’s second half would be that it was professional but they did very little to break up the play and offer decent threats of their own. The forwards had little to do outside of defend and Giroud was left totally isolated. There are still questions over this team and management but they’re two for two with qualification from the group assured.

  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Croatia
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Peru

    About the author

    Eric Roberts
    Eric Roberts

    Sports Journalist

    Eric has been a sports journalist for over 20 years and has travelled the world covering top sporting events for a number of publications. He also has a passion for betting and uses his in-depth knowledge of the sports world to pinpoint outstanding odds and value betting opportunities.