Group D favourites Argentina fluffed their lines in their opener against Iceland and must now face a Croatia outfit that put Nigeria away with consummate ease. Mark O'Haire previews the encounter from Nizhny Novgorod...
"Croatia hardly had to get out of first gear in their game against Nigeria and they have the quality to take charge of Group D by avoiding defeat in Nizhny Novgorod."
Argentina v Croatia
Thursday 21st June, 19:00
Live on BBC
Argentina left frustrated by debutants first up
Argentina failed to win their opening match at a World Cup tournament for the first time since 1990 as the South Americans were surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw by debutants Iceland. Lionel Messi was the villain of the piece after seeing his second-half spot-kick saved with the scores locked level.
Messi's missed penalty was Argentina's only clear-cut chance in the second half as La Albiceleste were left frustrated by Iceland's defensive tactics. Despite dominating possession and the shot count, Jorge Sampaoli's created few outstanding opportunities in a ponderous performance.
Substitute Cristian Pavon's bouncing cross drew a fine late save and Messi attempted 11 shots throughout the 90 minutes as the South Americans failed to find a breakthrough following Sergio Aguero's 19th minute opener. Indeed, Sampaoli's side have a soft centre and their lead lasted only four minutes.
The Argentina boss will supposedly ring the changes here with a switch to a three-man defence mooted. The ineffective Angel Di Maria, Maximiliano Meza, Lucas Biglia and Marcos Rojo will supposedly drop out of the rumoured XI, with Marcos Acuna, Enzo Perez, Cristian Pavon and Gabriel Mercado starting.
Croatia must improve attacking output
Croatia won their opening game of a World Cup for the first time since their debut in 1998 as an own goal and a Luka Modric penalty decided a poor match against Nigeria. Oghenekaro Etebo turned into his own net 15 minutes before the break and Modric confirmed the triumph with a 71st-minute spot-kick.
The Croatian captain provided the class that guided his team to an unconvincing victory. Both he and Ivan Rakitic were excellent in their passing, although the lack of movement among the forwards often thwarted their ambition. In fact, Modric's penalty was the Blazers' first on-target attempt of the encounter.
When the Balkan boys did create chances, it was usually their two creative midfielders who were involved. Ante Rebic - who scored twice as Eintracht Frankfurt beat Bayern Munich to win the German Cup in May - volleyed a great chance wide after Rakitic's sublime pass had freed Ivan Perisic on the left.
That was a rare moment of inspiration for the Croats and head coach Zlatko Dalic admitted his team "must be more efficient going forward". Marcelo Brozovic may come in for Andrej Kramaric in the Blazers' only major change, while Nikola Kalinic won't be involved having been sent home early for disciplinary reasons.
Argentina have been made [2.10] favourites to take maximum points here and that's a price that can be opposed. The South Americans may have monopolised possession and dominated the shot count against Iceland, but they rarely laid siege to the Nordic nation's goal with the minnows relatively comfortable.
In fact, La Albiceleste's display again highlighted their weakness at the back. Willy Caballero appeared unsure and lacking confidence between the sticks, while the rest of the defence looked shaky when pressured. A refreshed midfield may improve Argentina here but Jorge Sampaoli's side are overrated.
Croatia [4.20] hardly had to get out of first gear in their game against Nigeria and they have the quality to take charge of Group D by avoiding defeat in Nizhny Novgorod. The Blazers' ball retention skills are as good as any on the planet and at [1.89], are a generous price to avoid defeat in the Double Chance market.
Argentina scored only 19 goals across their 18 qualifying fixtures en-route to Russia and there was little evidence their offensive output had improved against Iceland. The South Americans still rely heavily on Lionel Messi for inspiration and a low-scoring contest may follow here on Thursday.
La Albiceleste have seen eight of their last 11 meetings with European nations feature Under 2.5 Goals [1.73], including each of their past five competitive contests, and so backing a repeat appeals at the odds on offer.
Croatia have followed suit with fewer than three strikes banking in eight consecutive outings outside of their homeland. Ten of their 12 preliminaries produced Under 2.5 Goals profit and these two nations' qualification games collectively averaged just 1.97 goals per-game.
Mark's World Cup Profit/Loss
Staked: 3.00 pts
Returned: 3.63 pts
Key Opta Stats for Argentina v Croatia
This will be the fifth meeting between Argentina and Croatia, with the South Americans winning twice to Croatia’s one (D1). Argentina are [2.08] to win.
Just one of the previous four meetings between Argentina and Croatia was at a World Cup, with Argentina winning 1-0 in a group stage game in 1998, courtesy of Mauricio Pineda’s strike. A 1-0 Argentina win is [7.6].
Croatia have lost all four of their World Cup meetings with South American sides, once in each of the four tournaments they’ve played in. Argentina are [3.25] to win half-time/full-time.
Lionel Messi has scored in each of his two previous appearances against Croatia, including his first ever goal for Argentina (March 2006). Messi is [2.2] to score.
Argentina forward Lionel Messi attempted 11 shots in his first game at the 2018 World Cup finals; the most he has attempted in a single match at a World Cup tournament – he failed to score, however. Under 2.5 goals is [1.7].
Lionel Messi has now failed to score with 21 successive shots in World Cup finals tournaments for Argentina, since last scoring versus Nigeria on June 25th 2014. Under 1.5 goals is [3.05].
Argentina started their 2018 World Cup campaign with a 1-1 draw against Iceland – they haven’t failed to win either of their opening two Group Stage games at a World Cup since 1974. Another draw is [3.45].
Croatia won their opening game against Nigeria – they’ve not won back-to-back World Cup games since the 1998 tournament. They are [4.2] to claim victory.
Croatia have scored in each of their last five World Cup games, their longest such streak in the competition. Over 2.5 goals is [2.38].