NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) – Croatia eased into the World Cup knockout stage after handing woeful Argentina a 3-0 drubbing thanks to second-half goals by Ante Rebic, captain Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in their Group D match on Thursday.
Rebic made the most of a goalkeeping error, Modric fired home a superb long range effort and Rakitic completed the rout to leave the hopes of twice world champions Argentina hanging by a thread with one last chance to salvage their campaign.
A hard-working Croatia side took the lead when Rebic spectacularly hooked the ball over his shoulder into the roof of the net in the 53rd minute after being teed up by a botched clearance from hapless goalkeeper Willy Caballero.
Skipper Modric then put his side on course to become the fourth country to book a place in the last 16 in Russia as he swerved right, then left and right again before hammering home a thunderous shot from just outside the area with 10 minutes left.
Rakitic struck the crossbar with a free kick soon after before finishing off the rout by tucking the ball away from close range in stoppage time to complete the victory.
Croatia’s second win in the group guarantees them a top two place while Argentina have one point and need to win their last group game against Nigeria in St Petersburg on Tuesday to boost their chances of advancing to the second round.
The burden of pressure weighed heavily on Argentina as they battled to get into the contest, throwing on three attacking substitutes after conceding the first goal but allowing their frustrations to boil over as they failed to make any impact.
Lionel Messi, facing yet another failure at international level, had little influence on the game as Argentina created one chance in the second half when Maximiliano Meza had a 64th minute effort stopped on the line by keeper Danijel Subasic.
The first half presented both teams with chances to grab the lead. On the half hour, Enzo Perez missed with an effort inside the Croatia penalty box, putting his shot wide after a defensive mix-up presented him with a chance right in front of goal.
Two minutes later, at the other end, Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic was guilty of similar profligacy as he ghosted in late onto a cross-goal ball but steered his diving header off target.
Croatia found their scoring touch after the break, though, to join hosts Russia, Uruguay and France as the qualified teams.
Editing by Ken Ferris