Saint Petersburg (AFP) – Argentina are facing a humiliating first round exit after a 3-0 mauling by Croatia which leaves Lionel Messi’s dream of finally lifting a major title in jeopardy.
Inspired by midfield masterclasses from Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia joined France in sealing their place in the last 16 on Thursday after Les Bleus saw off a spirited Peru 1-0.
Denmark remain in pole position to join France in qualifying from Group C as they drew 1-1 with Australia despite conceding another penalty thanks to the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.
Here AFP Sports looks at three things we learned today at the World Cup.
Modric upstages Messi
Rivals at club level, Argentina and Croatia’s captains faced off in Nizhny Novgorod, but it is Modric, not Messi, who was on the scoresheet to send his side into the last 16.
Unlike Argentina’s draw with World Cup debutants Iceland where Messi missed a penalty and was consistently at the heart of the action, the five-time World Player of the Year was a peripheral figure as Croatia’s midfield, marshalled by Modric and Messi’s Barcelona team-mate Rakitic controlled the game.
Modric’s coup de grace sealed Croatia’s qualification with a stunning long range effort for his side’s second goal before Rakitic rubbed salt in Argentine wounds in stoppage time.
Argentina now need to beat Nigeria in their final group game and hope other results go their way to prevent a humiliating early exit.
Penalty points for VAR
VAR system continues to divide opinion in Russia with the number of penalties awarded its biggest impact so far.
Mile Jedinak’s spot-kick to earn Australia a point against Denmark was already the 11th in the first week of the tournament with the current record for a World Cup of 18 looking set to be smashed.
Denmark have suffered more than most from the introduction of technology, conceding a penalty in both their games so far after the referee had originally waved away protests.
“After today I don’t like the system,” said Denmark’s goalscorer Christian Eriksen. “Two in a row? That is bitter!”
France find better balance
Much-criticised for a laboured performance despite getting off to a winning start against Australia, France coach Didier Deschamps resorted to his tried and tested system from reaching the final of Euro 2016 on home soil.
Younger talents Ousmane Dembele and Corentin Tolisso were sacrificed for the experience of Olivier Giroud and Blaise Matuidi.
Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe thrived playing off a physical focal point in Giroud for the first 45 minutes and Mbappe became France’s youngest ever goalscorer at a World Cup with a tap-in after Giroud’s initial effort had been saved.
There still seems more to come from such a talented French squad, but unlike many of the other pre-tournament favourites, they can already look forward to the last 16.