Albiceleste plumb new depths as Caballero's blooper proves costly
Willy Caballero's error proves to be a mortal wound for a team whose morale has plumbed new depths after four years of institutional chaos, final defeats, endless coaching changes and a hellish qualifying campaign.
The warning signs were there. But not even in Argentina's worst nightmares could they have envisioned such a craven capitulation as was witnessed on Thursday afternoon at the hands of Croatia. Jorge Sampaoli's beleaguered charges are now facing the real prospect of World Cup elimination in the very first round, and what is most concerning is the complete lack of urgency such a possibility incites in the squad.
After an even first half where neither side seemed to justify the expectation pressed on a match billed as one of the most exciting early clashes of the group stage of the World Cup, it was clear that Argentina's second match would be decided by the finest of margins. A team that had been overhauled following a desperate 1-1 draw with Iceland and stripped of three veterans of the Albiceleste set-up had once more failed to live up to expectations, riding their luck on more than one occasions as a series of errors threatened to open the door for a similarly uninspiring Croatia.
Enter Willy Caballero.
The Chelsea back-up goalkeeper must have felt that time stood still from the moment he sliced an innocuous back-pass and the ball gravitated towards the waiting Ante Rebic. Croatia's forward could hardly believe his luck as he responded with a crisp volley that flew past Caballero and into the empty net.
Already questioned after failing to act more decisively in Iceland's equaliser five days previously and the subject of a mass whispering campaign by those who would rather have seen River's Franco Armani don the gloves, Caballero looked as though he was willing the earth to swallow him whole while Croatia celebrated a goal that came gift-wrapped to break the deadlock.
The awful blooper was a blow for Argentina, but it need not have been decisive. Sadly, however, it proved a mortal wound for a team whose morale has plumbed new depths after four years of institutional chaos, final defeats, endless coaching changes and a hellish qualifying campaign that only avoided a catastrophic ending thanks to the incomparable Lionel Messi.
Even the magical captain has become infected by the insidious malaise that stalks the Albiceleste's ranks. Visibly anxious during the national anthems, Messi was a shadow of his usual self against Croatia, barely featuring at all during the first half and failing to impose himself on a team that valued efficiency over fireworks.
It was another Spain-based No. 10 that took all the plaudits. Luka Modric is the creative midfielder Argentina can only dream of, blessed with a vision and surety in the pass that almost seems to mock Sampaoli's men when compared with the rustic talents of the likes of Javier Mascherano and Enzo Pérez. Modric is the gem in this workmanlike Balkan unit and the Real Madrid midfielder crushed what little resistance remained in the Argentina ranks with a magnificent long-range shot that crept beyond the reach of Caballero.
From that moment on it was a procession, Croatia's boldness in possession contrasting sharply with an Argentina team that looked bereft of shape and confidence. The European side's third goal was little more than a procession as the Selección's defence floundered in almost comical fashion – though nobody in Argentina was laughing.
Where do Argentina go from here, then? Mathematically at least their World Cup is not yet over, with victory over Nigeria assuring they will at least have a chance in Tuesday's final Group D double-header. But even that result is far from guaranteed after a result that ranks among the worst in history for this proud football nation.
Dejected, downtrodden and devastated, Messi and his charges need a miracle to turn things around in time.