The writing has been on the wall for a long time but Argentina are facing the prospect of first round elimination from the World Cup after a Willy Caballero howler helped Croatia to a devastating 3-0 victory in Group D.
Caballero’s fluffed clearance gifted Ante Rebic the opening goal after 53 minutes and Argentina’s capitulation saw the outstanding Luka Modric rifle in a second before Ivan Rakitic tapped in a simple third in stoppage time.
Sampaoli’s switch back to a 3-4-3 had left Argentina vulnerable in the gaps in behind the attacking wing-backs but during an even opening 45 minutes, La Albiceleste could easily have led.
The change in formation still didn’t add much creatively and Lionel Messi found it more difficult than ever to make an impact but Enzo Pérez missing the target when the Croatia goal was gaping was a moment that Argentina were left to rue.
Croatia had their chances too with Mario Mandzukic heading wide moments later when the Argentina defence had gone missing but Jorge Sampaoli’s side were competing and still looked capable of nicking a result.
That was until the 53rd minute.
Willy Caballero, favoured for his supposed ability with the ball at his feet, had already given Argentina a scare in the first half with a poor pass out to Nicolás Tagliafico but after 53 minutes, the 37-year-old gifted Croatia a decisive opener.
The goalkeeper’s scuffed clearance from a Gabriel Mercado back-pass looped into the air and Ante Rebic, perhaps fortunate not to have been sent off in the first half for a challenge on Eduardo Salvio, volleyed the ball spectacularly into the net.
Argentina needed a reaction but there was none. Paulo Dybala and Cristian Pavón were introduced but the midfield was still seriously lacking and it made little difference as Luka Modric and co. took charge.
Modric, the type of midfielder that Argentina could only dream of, put the contest beyond doubt in the 81st minute with a two touches and a deadly accurate shot that whistled past Caballero.
It could have been worse for Argentina with Ivan Rakitic cracking the crossbar with a free-kick but as Jorge Sampaoli’s side lost any semblance of composure, Rakitic did get his goal. Caballero kept out an initial effort after a counter and with the defence missing, Mateo Kovacic squared for Rakitic to tap in.
Defeat might not mean that Argentina’s World Cup is over just yet but there can be no doubt that La Albiceleste are in need of a drastic overhaul.
Should Iceland beat Nigeria in their second Group D game on Friday, Iceland would need only a draw against Croatia in their final match but qualification or not, Argentina’s problems run far deeper.
The players response did little to dismiss rumours of discontent in the camp and with Sampaoli’s future in doubt, where do Argentina go from here?