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Croatia-Argentina: From Messi(anic) to Titanic

A week ago, summing up the Argentinian team, I wrote that they were simply too old, and “I suspect this will be a time when it becomes painfully clear that the window closed four years ago.” Tonight, it was painful and it was clear, and worse probably than any of us could probably imagine. The disastrous proportions were hinted at by my Argentine friend Roberto, a fine soccer mind in his own right, when he noted two weeks ago that Coach Jorge Sampaoli did not seem to have any clear tactics in mind at all. After a brilliant run with the Chilean national side, which played the ultimate high pressure game, he picked an ancient and pretty slow squad, and in the end had no idea what to do with them. Everyone connected with the Argentine side was diminished in this performance, a crash-and-burn of spectacular proportion. We might say "Van Gaaled" his career with this one.

The body language of the two leaders was symbolic from the beginning, Messi from the outset looking like he couldn’t believe that he’d talked himself out of his retirement from the Albiceleste. He looked miserable throughout, and this from one of the most even-keeled and often joyous players in the game. Then there was Sampaoli delaminating early, his anxiety washing through the black suit (“Sampaoli, by Versace,” the ad might run), all cortisol pumping through with every stomped step, and nary an answer. One imagined two centuries back in Russia, when a similarly proportioned Napoleon watched a brilliant managerial run come apart at the seams, critical miscalculations exposed in ruthless fashion.

Argentina might just qualify, you know. Normally, I’d like their chances against Nigeria more than Iceland’s against Croatia, even if Croatia plays their bench. But the problems are too deep, spiritually infused doubts in the bones at this point. Alexi Lalas summed it up pretty well: they were “devoid of organization, devoid of creativity, and ultimately devoid of heart.” Nobody is on the same page at the moment, and the massive weight of national catastrophe suffocates like boulders stacked on the chest. Lord, that was painful to watch, from Caballero’s nightmare clearance (the “alley oop to Rebić’s dunk,” the announcer quipped) to Otamendi kicking the ball at Rakitić’s face. I was glad that we were spared a red (though arguably Rebić should have gone early, but hard to give a red when was in being fouled at the same time, I think). It had an aroma of nasty all night, the constant sight of cleats on flesh pockmarking the affair, but the fortunately the worse sight all night was Sampaoli fervently weaving to the exit, no balm for his battered men, no stomach to the face the Albiceleste supporters, though to his credit at the press conference, he begged supporters for forgiveness while taking on the blame.

As bad as Argentina were, it owes a good bit to the best organized team in the tournament, Croatia. After the last game, I noted that don't know if I've ever seen a team look terrific against them,” and tonight will add to that legend. The midfield three moved like the O’Jays, all choreographed synchronicity on defense, closing off service to Messi and Aguero, and forcing action to the anemic Argentinian flanks. If you go back and watch, you’ll see this constant triangle in perfect defensive balance. Lovren has always seemed a streaky player, on the edge between reckless and finely tuned aggression, and we’re seeing the latter in spades right now, while his Whitewalker partner, the Besiktas centerback Vida (more death than life for the Argentines, unfortunately) was precise in his decisions all game long. Vrsaljko, the Atletico Madrid right back, was class all night and the professorial looking Strinic has held his own on the left. It’s been an outstanding performance there. Aguero had one great turn and shot, but that was about all there was for Argentina until the game was out of reach, and the second of two relatively easy clean sheets is in the books.

Modrić…and Rakitić. All the other big teams have superstars up front, but nobody else has one midfielder at Modrić’s level, and Rakitić is better than all but a handful of the rest. Together, a thing of beauty. Modrić’s gifts are so subtle, and his frame and appearance such a disjuncture from “star athlete” that it takes several viewings to catch what a genius player he is. Indeed, he was cut from his first youth side in Croatia, no real wonder that such a runt without much speed or eye-popping quickness would be cashiered.

Indeed, as I reach for parallels (beyond “looks like a bike messenger, heroin addict, or that odd friend of Jimmy’s who should really wash his hair once in a while”), the one that most readily comes to mind is Wayne Gretzky, who just saw where the game was going two speeds faster than everyone else. Modrić is a complete two-way player, intercepting passes, winning tackles, and just nicking the ball off his man, and constantly filling the spaces before the enemy can arrive. Once he wins the ball, his team invariably keeps it. He rarely goes for the “optimistic” (read: almost never gonna happen) ball, but moves his team into transition seamlessly. If the play is on, he delivers (like the ball that set Rebic free for the first true chance, which he promptly skied. He was all industry and business, setting the tempo, unruffled, and when he decided to shoot, his bender was game over, rout on. Two of the best back-to-back games I’ve seen by a midfielder, almost Zidane-like in its unflappable elegance.

His partner, Rakitić, was likewise brilliant, a complete two-way player who wins headers, likewise uncannily judicious in choosing the safe v. the ambitious pass, and capable of scoring if it needs to be done (his free kick after having the ball kicked at his face from inches away was an act of beautiful savagery, Caballero rescued by the crossbar). Because the two can interchange so seamlessly, Croatia can create and defend like no other midfield I’ve seen at this competition. Anyone who wants to beat them is going to have a very difficult task at hand.

The attackers were a bit profligate but always looked up for the next one; I can hear my mentor Mike Davis telling Mandzukic “from whence it came” in reference to the first-half header that he tried to redirect rather than punch back across goal) and Perisic might have done a bit better. Rebić and Mandzukic both picked up cards and plenty of enemies with their physical play, but they both possess the power to unsettle any defense, and bring great industry. Indeed, the whole side does--except, apparently Nikola Kalinic, dismissed from the squad after refusing to come on versus Nigeria. The manager can’t be denied in any decision at this point; his team is the best of any side I’ve seen thus far, and his post-game match summed up where they are, and where they need to be. “We were excellent,” Dalic said. “But now we must be calm, dignified and humble.”

It was perhaps more psychodrama than scintillating football for much of the match, but perhaps there’s more beauty in the Croatian defending that meets the eye, and when they did surge into attack, they looked a well-conducted orchestra. Bravo, Croatia, and I'll be glued to the midfield as long as the run continues.

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