Croatia shake off ‘Dark Horse’ tag with sublime performance vs Argentina

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Much of the post-match analysis from last night’s encounter between Argentina and Croatia was centred around Jorge Sampaoli’s tactical ineptitude. That is only natural when you consider the fact that Lionel Messi and several other world class talents continue to struggle to live up to the pressure that comes with wearing the famous Albiceleste shirt. The former Chile and Sevilla coach made the mistake of blaming his players from being unable to make his system work, and this has understandably taken a lot of attention away from the Vatreni and journeyman tactician Zlatko Dalić.

Indeed, Dalić deserves a huge amount of credit for masterminding a convincing 3-0 victory against a side which is still among the most prestigious in the world, despite its obvious failings. Once again, the 51-year-old’s 4-2-3-1 formation worked an absolute treat as his players managed to limit their opponents’ space in expert fashion. In truth, they managed to make a side filled with some of the world’s best players look very ordinary and somewhat out of their depth at this level. Messi will ultimately carry the can but it is clear that his team’s problems run much deeper than any one individual.

Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić both managed to raise their game sufficiently, following what was an effective but ultimately unspectacular display against Nigeria. Aided by an impressive performance of the vastly-improved Marcelo Brozović, Enzo Pérez and Javier Mascherano struggled to match their Croatian counterparts in the centre of the pitch. As the 0-0 scoreline would suggest, the first half was quite an evenly-matched affair but Croatia always looked to be in greater control of the match from a tactical point of view. Indeed, Sampaoli alluded to this when speaking to the media after the match:

“Croatia were an excellent team, but after we conceded we lost our way and we were emotionally broken. We couldn’t change the course of events. I am very hurt by the defeat but I probably didn’t understand the match as I should have.” The 58-year-old also took his share of the blame for being unable to get the best out of Messi: “I beg for the fans’ forgiveness. The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance. The team doesn’t gel as well as it should. I have always looked for the best position on the pitch for my players. The players have a special responsibility as well, but we didn’t manage to find relationships that Argentina or Lionel Messi benefited from.”

Given how much criticism has been directed towards Argentina, and how few people have taken the time to praise Croatia for their performance, there is every chance that Dalić’s side could continue to fly under the radar without being considered as one of the true favourites to win the tournament. With regard to their ability to press the ball, they are one of the best (if not the best) in Russia this summer. They are clearly very well drilled and that is testament to the work done by Dalić since he took over last Autumn.

It came as no surprise when Dalić looked to counter Sampaoli’s claim that Argentina were lost by insisting that his team were simply better on the night: “I have trusted my team from the first day. I didn’t believe we would be through after the second game so we have to be happy because we have beaten a strong Argentinian side with the best player in the world. Argentina were not confused; we were excellent.

“Over the last few days we haven’t looked at tactics because I wanted to relieve my players of the stress. We had good scouts and analysed the opposition well. We adapted our style to them. Let’s enjoy this moment. In the first half, we were compact and created three sitters but we failed to score. That’s why I told the players in the second half that we will create more chances but we had to press higher.”

It was there for all to see how psychologically fragile Argentina are, having endured so many high-profile disappointments in recent years. However, Croatia were fantastic and deserve all the credit going for exposing Argentina’s tactical frailties by playing in such a calm and composed manner. Only time will tell just how far they can go but, based on current form, they have every chance of emulating or perhaps even eclipsing their country’s extraordinary achievements of 1998.

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