NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia, June 21 (Reuters) – Croatia marched into the World Cup knockout stage by handing Argentina a 3-0 drubbing with goals from Ante Rebic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in their Group D match on Thursday to leave the hopes of the twice world champions hanging by a thread.
Rebic made the most of a goalkeeping error, Modric fired home a superb long-range effort and Rakitic completed the rout as Argentina suffered their heaviest defeat in the first round group stages since losing 6-1 to Czechoslovakia in 1958.
Croatia took the lead at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium when Rebic spectacularly hooked the ball over his shoulder into the roof of the net in the 53rd minute after being teed up by a botched clearance from hapless goalkeeper Willy Caballero.
Skipper Modric then put his side on course to become the fourth country to book a place in the last 16 in Russia as he swerved right, then left and right again before hammering home a thunderous shot from just outside the area with 10 minutes left.
Rakitic struck the crossbar with a free kick soon after before finishing off the rout by tucking the ball away from close range in stoppage time to complete the victory, leaving a subdued Lionel Messi and his Argentina team mates dejected.
“The most important objective has been achieved, we are ecstatic over it,” said man-of-the-match Modric.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic added: “We have to be happy, we have emerged from the group and we have beaten great Argentina with the greatest player in the world, Messi.”
Croatia’s second win in the group guarantees them a top two place while Argentina have one point and need to win their last group game against Nigeria in St Petersburg on Tuesday to boost their chances of advancing to the second round.
The burden of pressure weighed heavily on Argentina, who threw on three attacking substitutes after conceding the first goal but allowing their frustrations to boil over as they failed to make an impact despite their fans dominating the stands.
Messi, facing yet another failure at international level, had little influence on the game as Argentina created only one chance in the second half when Maximiliano Meza had a 64th minute effort stopped on the line by keeper Danijel Subasic.
The first half saw both teams with chances to grab the lead but it was Croatia who found their scoring touch after the break to join hosts Russia, Uruguay and France in the second round. (Editing by Ken Ferris)