Lionel Messi of Argentina. (Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images)

EKATERINBURG, Russia — A World Cup of teetering titans has found its way to its most staggering scenes yet. They happened Thursday night in Nizhny Novgorod as Croatia cut Argentina to 3-0 ribbons, and they proved jarring enough to dredge all kinds of tears from witnesses, with the Argentine ones a broth of dejection and confusion.

After all, the soaring and globe-trotting career of Lionel Messi never did figure to find its most emphatic bummer in Nizhny Novgorod — that city 797 years old, 250 miles east of Moscow, 8,625 miles northeast of Buenos Aires and formerly named Gorky. It never did figure to happen in some World Cup second group match, a juncture at which Argentina and arguably the world’s best player surely wouldn’t find themselves in a precarious wheeze.

It utterly did not figure to feature Messi’s fourth Argentina manager in four World Cups, Jorge Sampaoli, saying, “First and foremost I beg for the fans’ forgiveness.” And it probably didn’t figure to happen against Croatia, certainly no slouch but 0-4 previously in World Cups against South American teams.

All that came true, though, and lent the largest crater to Messi’s long World Cup road, which started in 2006 at age 18 in the 74th minute of a 6-0 win against Serbia and Montenegro, which no longer exists as such, when he quickly assisted on a goal by Hernan Crespo. From there his excellence, which got his Barcelona shirts sold all over the planet and worn on every continent even as we can’t be sure about Antarctica, began to fuel the natural wish that his stewardship of a World Cup win for Argentina would just make a lot of sense.


Want smart analysis, opinions, viewing guides and more from the World Cup? Sign up for our month-long newsletter. Every match day through the final July 15.


Now his ledger of four World Cups not only features only one venture beyond the quarterfinals (to the final in 2014), but it reels with two cases of uncommon shredding: a 4-0 annihilation by Germany in South Africa in the 2010 quarterfinals, and this 3-0 matter where a goalkeeper’s howler — and Ante Rebic’s fine, ensuing score for Croatia that made it 1-0 in the 53rd minute — somehow left a team of Argentina’s alleged caliber “emotionally broken,” in its manager’s remarkable words.

“Argentina y un papelon Mundial,” headlined the Argentine newspaper Clarin.

A bad show. How in the World Cup? As Diego Maradona looked on, the man who piloted Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title took on the countenance of a film critic who can’t believe the slop he’s watching.

It threw Group D, deemed among the toughest, into a strange, new soupiness. Overnight from Thursday, Croatia stood on six points, safely booked to the knockout stage with only a match with Iceland remaining. Iceland and Argentina stood on one point, having drawn 1-1 between themselves last Saturday as Messi missed a penalty. Nigeria had zero after one match, a loss to Croatia ahead of a match with Iceland on Friday.

For just one permutation, Argentina could hope for a Nigeria win over Iceland on Friday, then a win over Nigeria in its third group match next Tuesday, plus a Croatia win over Iceland. Who knew Argentina would have to sit around doing some hoping? Who knew the idea of it gathering the parts of its sudden jalopy well enough to beat Nigeria would become something of considerable question?

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” went the manager’s assessment. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

Together, it got him few shining chances in Nizhny Novgorod, with the Croatians worthy of some credit there. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Messi will turn 31. Come 2022 in Qatar, he will turn 35. He already sort-of retired from international play once. He already came here as the lead actor in a drama about his alleged final real chance.

It’s possible his World Cup career will groan with a quarterfinal loss to Germany in 2006 on penalty kicks in a match in which the manager kept him seated at age 18, causing mass guff back home; that 4-0 decimation by Germany in 2010 in which he didn’t matter because nobody could have; the strange 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2014 final in which he couldn’t quite come through; and, wait . . .

A failure even to appear in the round of 16?

That wasn’t part of the script.

— Chuck Culpepper

***

Game report

Croatia 3, Argentina 0

Group D, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod

In supreme fashion, Croatia ran through Argentina on Thursday, 3-0, earning a spot in the World Cup’s knockout round for just the second time as an independent nation. The Blazers’ world-class midfield completed 289 passes, dominated defensively and, after a sloppy and scoreless first half, pierced and demoralized Argentina — four years ago a World Cup finalist — in the second.

“It was a shot in the arm for us — we played a perfect game and you need a perfect game to beat such a great team,” Croatia midfielder and captain Luka Modric told reporters afterward.

For as steady as Croatia has been in two wins against Nigeria and now La Albiceleste, Argentina has been shaky, conceding a draw to Iceland to begin the tournament, then opening the door for the Blazers with a howler of a mistake. Willy Caballero, Argentina’s keeper, duffed a clearing attempt in the 54th minute that Ante Rebić was right there waiting for. He sent a volley through Caballero’s silhouette to begin the scoring.

After that, the floodgates were wide open. Modric bent a wonder strike around a diving Caballero in the 80th minute. And in added time, the Blazers schooled Argentina down the field after a poor corner kick for a tap in by Ivan Rakitic, giving Argentina a catastrophic negative-three goal differential through two games.

“We were emotionally broken and we didn’t have any football arguments to make to change the course of events,” Argentina Manager Jorge Sampaoli said.

Rakitic’s Barcelona teammate, Lionel Messi, was thought to be the man to watch at the World Cup as he attempted to lead La Albiceleste back to a championship and emerge from the shadow of Diego Maradona. But that shadow grows longer now after a pair of dud performances that included Messi botching a potentially game-winning penalty attempt against Iceland.

“We cut off Messi, stopped him receiving the ball, he’s their most dangerous player,” Modric said.

“Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel around him as it should,” Sampaoli added.

Argentina will now need loads of help, plus a win over Nigeria, to have any hope of advancing. Neither of those seem like a sure bet.

“We’re playing with a lot of pressure for our last match,” Sampaoli said. “We tried everything and clearly we didn’t find what we wanted to find.”

***

What’s next

Argentina: vs. Nigeria in St. Petersburg, June 26, 2 p.m.

Croatia: vs. Iceland in Rostov-on-Don, June 26, 2 p.m.

Complete World Cup schedule and results

***

In-game updates

Goal Croatia!

So, these guys are legit.

In added time, the Blazers schooled Argentina down the field after a poor corner kick. Ivan Rakitic took a shot from 10 yards out that was saved by Caballero, but Croatia was all over the rebound. Rakitic took a pass back a the top of the six-yard box and calmly deposited the ball in the net.

Goal Croatia!

A wonder strike from Luka Modric in the 80th minute will likely seal Croatia’s victory over Argentina and a spot in the knockout round. After a turnover at midfield, the Blazers beat the Argentine defense back downfield and swung the ball to Modric 20-some yards from the goal. He made a couple moves, then curled a shot around Willy Caballero that sent his teammates in the technical area wild.

Yellow card to Croatia’s Vrsaljko

In the 67th minute.

Argentina are feet from equalizing

Gonzalo Higuain drove to the end line with the ball in the 64th minute and flipped a pass to the 6-yard box where Maximiliano Meza was cutting. His shot was saved by Subašić, the Croat keeper, and Messi got to the rebound. Subašić  made another save, knocking the ball out of bounds for a corner that went harmlessly.

Goal Croatia!

Oh, what a mistake! Caballero, Argentina’s keeper, duffed a clearing attempt Rebic was right there waiting and sent a volley through his silhouette. The Blazers take the lead in the 54th minute.

Broadcasters compared Caballero’s “clearance” to an alley-oop pass to Rebic’s slam dunk.

Here’s how it sounded on the Argentine national broadcast.


Wilfredo Caballero of Argentina looks dejected after his mistake leads to a Croatia goal. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Yellow card to Argentina’s Mercado

In the 51st minute.

Halftime: Argentina 0, Croatia 0

A frenzied, physical and, at times, sloppy first 45 minutes yielded plenty of scoring chances but no goal between Argentina and Croatia, which go to the half tied. In a two-minute stretch just past the midway mark of the half, Argentina’s Enzo Perez missed a wide open net after a miscommunication on the Croat back line. Then the Blazers’ Mario Mandžukić whiffed on a wide open header on a beautiful cross from Šime Vrsaljko.

Only Croatia can clinch a spot in the knockout round with a win Thursday, but Argentina is certainly more desperate for a victory after conceding a draw to Iceland last week.

Yellow card to Croatia’s Rebic

In the 40th minute.

Now Croatia misses a chance

Two minutes later, Šime Vrsaljko played a gorgeous ball toward the six-yard box for Mario Mandžukić who escaped his defender. But Mandžukić somehow couldn’t get his head to the ball, which skittered out of bounds. Both teams have had grade A chances. We’re still tied.

Argentina misses a wide open net

Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subašić was drawn out of his goal after a miscue in the Blazers’ back line in the 30th minute. That left Enzo Perez with the ball on his foot from 10 yards away without anyone in front of the goal and without a defender to pressure him.

Still, Perez rushed his attempt and sent it wide. We’re still scoreless as the game starts to open up.

Croatia creates the first chance

In the 5th minute, Ivan Perišić got in behind the Argentine defense and struck a hip-high shot from eight yards out that was blocked away by goalkeeper Willy Caballero. It’s an encouraging start for the Blazers that they can control the ball and get it behind defenders.

Diego Maradona kisses Messi jersey

Makes fans absolutely bonkers with excitement.

Starting lineups announced

Pregame thoughts

What a treat this match should be. This Group D contest pits Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi of Argentina and Ivan Rakitic of Croatia. It’s the first meeting of the teams at the World Cup since 1998, where Argentina edged Croatia, 1-0. Argentina finds itself needing a victory after conceding a draw to Iceland in its first match. Croatia looked solid as it took care of Nigeria, 2-0. Both teams feel very comfortable playing with possession of the ball, which means counterattacks and set pieces will matter. Also, fouls: Messi missed a penalty, which led to that disappointing result against Iceland. Luka Modric finished his penalty attempt against Nigeria.

Argentina (0-1-0, 1 point)

  • Last World Cup showing: Runner-up, 2014.
  • Best finish: Champion, 1986, 1978.
  • Notable: Messi scored his first-ever international goal against Croatia in a 2006 friendly.
  • FIFA world ranking: 5. ELO world ranking: 6.

Croatia (1-0-0, 3 points)

  • Last World Cup showing: Group stage, 2014.
  • Best finish: Third place, 1998.
  • Notable: Croatia has played a South American opponent in each of its four previous World Cups. It is 0-4 in those matches.
  • FIFA world ranking: 20. ELO world ranking: 17.

Players to watch

For Argentina there is only one name: Messi. Messi, Messi, Messi. A World Cup victory could cement his legacy as the best-ever Argentine footballer, surpassing even Diego Maradona. And right now, after that missed penalty kick, he needs a big moment for redemption.

Croatian midfielder Luka Modric (Real Madrid) is a model of consistency and football IQ. Never too fast, never too slow, Croatia will look to him to feed a talented line of forwards. He finished his penalty attempt to seal a 2-0 win against Nigeria on Saturday.

— Jacob Bogage

Read more about the World Cup:

Croatia vs. Nigeria 2018 World Cup: Modric’s penalty kick seals 2-0 Croatia victory

Iceland stops Messi, and a World Cup tie with Argentina feels like a massive win

Argentina coach plans major changes to team at World Cup

World Cup fans’ view: Argentina supporters groups unite for the blue and white

Which teams should you root for in the World Cup?

‘GOOOOOOOOL!’ Andres Cantor is the Spanish-speaking American voice of the World Cup