Lionel Messi’s World Cup dream was left hanging by a thread as Croatia powered into the last 16 with a 3-0 rout of Argentina here Thursday.
Second-half goals from Ante Rebic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic sealed a deserved victory as a poor Argentina were left on the brink of a humiliating first-round exit.
The Group D defeat means Argentina have just one point from two games, meaning they will probably have to beat Nigeria in their last game and hope other results go their way to avoid elimination.
The result left Argentinian fans in tears inside the Nizhny Novgorod stadium, while Diego Maradona watched from the stands in stunned disbelief.
Croatia took the lead after a horrendous blunder by Argentine goalkeeper Willy Caballero in the 53rd minute, the stopper chipping a clearance straight to Rebic who lashed home a thunderous volley.
Real Madrid star Modric then produced an electrifying 80th-minute goal before Messi’s Barcelona team-mate Rakitic completed the scoring after Croatia sliced apart Argentina’s hapless defence in injury time.
The defeat leaves the Argentinians facing an ignominious repeat of their 2002 campaign when they also went out at the group stage after being tipped as possible World Cup winners.
All the attention after the 3-0 defeat will focus on Argentina and Messi but it was also the result of a fine performance by Croatia.
A curiously lifeless and uninspired Argentine display was capped off by Caballero’s mistake when he somehow managed to chip the ball just a few yards to Croatia’s Rebic, following a Gabriel Mercado backpass.
Rebic volleyed home with aplomb but veteran Caballero will have nightmares for the rest of his days at his mistake — likely to feature in any list of worst goalkeeping blunders for some time.
And throughout it all Messi, arguably the world’s best player, remained a peripheral and largely ponderous figure, briefly flashing to life on too few occasions.
The 30-year-old’s dream of winning the World Cup now looks remote.