Good evening and thanks for joining us as we bring you live coverage of Argentina's clash with Croatia
in Group D at the 2018 World Cup
in Russia. Jorge Sampaoli
's men desperately need three points having drawn to Iceland over the weekend, while Croatia know that a win at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium will secure them a spot in the knockouts with a game to spare.
ARGENTINA STARTING XI: Caballero; Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Acuna, Mascherano, Perez, Salvio; Aguero, Messi, Meza,
CROATIA STARTING XI: Subasic; Vrsaljko, Strinic, Lovren, Vida; Rakitic, Brozovic; Modric, Perisic, Rebic; Mandzukic
ARGENTINA SUBSTITUTES: Guzman, Ansaldi, Biglia, Fazio, Banega, Higuain, Di Maria, Armani, Rojo, Lo Celso, Dybala, Pavon
CROATIA SUBSTITUTES: Livakovic, Corluka, Kovacic, Kramaric, L. Kalinic, Judvaj, Bradaric, Caleta-Car, Badelj, Pjaca, Pivaric, N. Kalinic
So the major news for Argentina fans is that Sampaoli has opted to switch to a new formation in the form of a 3-4-3. The Argentines will see Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Otamendi and Nicolas Tagliafico starting as the three centre-backs, while Marcos Acuna and Eduardo Salvio come in as the wing-backs tonight.
Elsewhere, Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez are charged with holding the centre of midfield. Sergio Aguero, Lionel Messi and Maximiliano Meza will form a three-man forward line for Argentina.
Croatia have decided to continue with a 4-2-3-1 formation, although Luka Modric
has been moved further forward into an advanced creative role, leaving Ivan Rakitic
to operate alongside Marcelo Brozovic deeper in central midfield. Modric will play in advanced three that also consists of Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic
, providing service for lone frontman Mario Mandzukic.
At the back, Zlatko Dalic
has stuck with his four trusted defenders. The only change comes in the form of Brozovic taking the place of Andrej Kramaric.
Argentina's opener against Iceland provided a perfect microcosm of their failures during a lacklustre qualification process. Sampaoli's men found it difficult breaking Iceland down in a 1-1 draw at the Spartak Stadium, while defensive weaknesses cost Argentina at the back as they threw away two points from a leading position.
Messi proved the difference during qualifying with a last-ditch hat-trick against Ecuador, but the Barcelona man could not quite deliver in the country's frustrating World Cup opener.
Messi had 11 shots at goal in the opening game, inclusive of a missed penalty, which now represents the most by a player in a game at the World Cup without scoring since way back in 1974. The notion that this Argentina side falters when Messi is not on song was strengthened in Moscow last Saturday.
Barcelona's key man likely remains the crucial player for Argentina, given that the forward has scored 14 goals in 17 games over the last two years for his country, including six in his last four games. Sampaoli's tactical shift tonight clearly suggests that he wants to get more out of his men going forward.
It has tended to be at this tournament where Messi has sometimes struggled. The veteran has failed to score with his last 21 shots in matches at World Cup finals.
The troublesome draw with the competition's debutants now in Iceland leaves Argentina in vital need of three points here should they want to keep the prospect of qualification into the knockout rounds completely in their own hands.
Observers would have to head back to 1974 for the last time Argentina failed to win either of their first two World Cup games in the group stages. Sampaoli's men need three points here to stave off some increasingly-mounting pressure.
Despite Aguero bagging his first World Cup goal against Iceland, Argentina's major problems lie in the creative department. The country have scored more than once in only two of their last 10 competitive games, netting just nine across those outings too.
Added to that, Argentina had the worst shot conversion rate in the South American quadrant of qualifying for the World Cup with a meagre ratio of converting just 8.1% of shots into goals.
One statistic that might just instil some confidence into the Argentinian fanbase is that the country has tasted just one defeat in their last 16 group games at the World Cup. That last defeat came against England in a 1-0 loss at the 2002 edition of the tournament in Japan.
Croatia made light work of Nigeria on Saturday evening as Zlatko Dalic
's men beat the Super Eagles 2-0 in a game that was arguably the least entertaining of the tournament thus far.
Perhaps an indictor of the lack of quality on show, Croatia's first shot on target came in the 92nd minute of the game, with the victors profiting from an Oghenekaro Etebo own goal and a penalty netted by Modric.
Despite the negativity in that win, Croatia know that a victory tonight will see their place in the knockout stages confirmed with a game against Iceland still to spare.
A win at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium this evening would see the country secure two wins in World Cup games on the bounce for the first time since their debut in the tournament in 1998.
In fact, Croatia have never lost their second group game at a World Cup, winning three contests and drawing the other across four appearances at the tournament. The country has conceded just one goal during those matches too.
One major piece of news that has engulfed the Croatian camp in the last few days has been the departure of frontman Nikola Kalinic. The striker was sent home after reportedly refusing to come on as a substitute against Nigeria after complaining of a back issue.
Since that news emerged, Dalic has comes out to claim that he sent the forward home due to those fitness concerns: Dalic had this to say of the issue: "During the Nigeria encounter, Kalinic was warming up and was supposed to come on in the second half. However, he then stated he wasn't ready to come on due to a back issue. The same thing happened during the Brazil friendly in England, as well as before the practice session on Sunday. I have calmly accepted that, and since I need my players fit and ready to play, I have made this decision."
The Croatia coach will be delighted having picked up his first World Cup win as manager against Nigeria, regardless of the performance. The new boss was brought in when Ante Cacic was sacked during qualification. Dalic had to win Croatia's final qualifier against Ukraine in order to setup a contest against Greece, which his men negotiated comfortably to find themselves here in Russia this summer.
What might cause coach Dalic some slight concern, however, is the fact that Croatia have lost all four of their World Cup games against opponents from South America. Losing three times to Brazil and once to La Albiceleste.
PREDICTION: Argentina's performance against Iceland suggests that they could struggle here against Croatia, although reverting to a new formation could see Sampaoli gain something else from his players. It's also incredibly hard to keep Messi quiet and after a poor display against Iceland, it would be typical of the veteran to turn in something special this evening. This will be a tight contest, especially given the Croatian quality in midfield, but I'm backing Argentina to secure what could be a crucial three points with a 2-1 win.
Coming into the side tonight, Argentine defender Mercado is already wary of Croatia's quality in the centre of the park: "This is a vital game. We need to win to go ahead of them. We know that Croatia has those two players in the centre [Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic] who have good control of the ball. They try to take a lead role too and they have other very good players."
As for Croatia, Dalic has recognised Messi's qualities, although his focus remains on his side turning in a display based on solid teamwork: "There is no perfect way to stop Lionel Messi ... he is the greatest player in the world. But while one excellent player can make a great result, a great team does the job much better ... We will go into the game a little bit more relaxed than them."
The players are now out on the pitch as we run through the respective national anthems. The game will be underway shortly!
Here's a quick recap of the starting XIs before we get moving at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium...
ARGENTINA STARTING XI: Caballero; Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Acuna, Mascherano, Perez, Salvio; Messi, Aguero, Meza
CROATIA STARTING XI: Subasic; Vrsaljko, Strinic, Lovren, Vida; Rakitic, Brozovic; Modric, Perisic, Rebic; Mandzukic
KICKOFF! It's Croatia who get us underway in Russia, kicking from right to left in an all black strip, while Argentina feature in traditional blue and white stripes.
This stadium is absolutely rocking with Argentine support and it seems like a wonderful atmosphere inside the ground. Sampaoli's men have started comfortably, moving the ball around neatly inside the Croatia half.
It seems like Croatia have borrowed slightly from Iceland's tactics here. Dalic's men have dropped quite deep in these opening moments and appear to be inviting Argentina on.
SAVE! Croatia almost go ahead... The three-at-the-back gets caught out with a lofted ball over the top for Perisic, who breaks free of right-sided defender Mercado. The Inter Milan man moves into the box and drives across goal, where Caballero dives to tip wide of the far post.
Mandzukic is doing some keen pressing up top and clatters into Otamendi, who crumples to the deck. Croatia have actually sought to match Argentina with three forwards against their three centre-backs. That could leave spaces in the middle for Sampaoli's charges, but could also cause the South Americans real issues in defence.
Brilliant combination work from Croatia allows them to counter deep from defence as the ball is worked in tandem between Rakitic, Modric and Manduzkic, before Tagliafico is punished for a late lunge on the forward.
CLOSE! Rakitic is a genius. The midfielder gets his head up just short of the Argentina box and whips a wonderful ball out over the left-back and into the right channel. Rebic breaks onto it, but cannot find the required quality for his cut-back to find Mandzukic. That would have been some goal...
CHANCE! Argentina have offered little going forward, although Perez comes alive in the middle to produce the cheekiest of chips over the defence and into the path of Messi, who cannot catch the flight of the ball over his shoulder to punish Subasic.
CLOSE! Much better from Argentina now as the ball is threaded down the right channel and into the path of Messi, who is able to square the ball across the face of goal for Meza. The youngster picks his spot, only to be thwarted by the sliding blocks of both Lovren and Vida in the centre of the box.
For the first time tonight Croatia allow Argentina just a little too much space in the middle, leaving time for a ball to be driven out into the path of Acuna down the left flank, but the winger cannot bring it under control with the danger just starting to develop.
OUCH! A crunching challenge sees both Rakitic and Perez go for a loose ball in the centre of the pitch. The Croatian man is the one left on the deck and he'll need a couple of seconds to recover here.
An action-packed opening so far with both teams offering glimmers of quality already in the final third. Perisic has perhaps had the best of the chances as he forced Caballero into a quality save down low. Argentina already look more energised in this 3-4-3 setup.
CLOSE! Caballero and Tagliafico are caught showboating at the back by an onrushing Mandzukic, but the referee blows his whistle for a foul at the crucial moment just when Croatia think that they have stolen possession right in front of goal.
OFF THE BAR! Acuna comes bursting down the left channel and moves into space to find a cross for Aguero in the middle. The wing-back whips in his delivery and it somehow swirls the other way and clips the top of Subasic's bar with the keeper seemingly beaten by the deviation.
Sampaoli's men are certainly more energetic than they were against Iceland in the opener. The switch in formation has just allowed them to apply a little more pressure down the flanks. Aguero goes on a mazing run and his eventual cross is headed clear by Strinic with Messi lurking.
The resulting corner into the middle is woeful and Argentina are unable to clear the first man at the near post. Sampaoli is going bananas on the touchline.
Messi steals possession over on the right and is able to cut inside towards the box. His chipped cross looks to pick out the movement of Aguero, but the ball is overhit and Subasic is left to gather the loose pass.
WHAT A MISS! Croatia fail to clear their lines as Lovren and Subasic are caught dallying inside the box, leaving Meza to force the issue and send the ball loose. A clearance is sent only as far as Perez, who has the goal at his mercy with Subasic caught out of position. Somehow, though, the midfielder curls his effort the wrong side of the post from the edge of the area.
CHANCE! Croatia move straight down the other end through Vrsaljko on the right, who cuts inside to send in a cross with his left. The full-back sees Mandzukic peel free of the last man over on the left channel to beat the offside trap, although the forward sends his diving header wide with just Caballero to beat.
We've slipped into a slight pattern of possessional dominance from Argentina. Croatia will not mind that too much, though, given the quality they have shown at times when counter-attacking in this contest.
Rebic is penalised rather harshly for a challenge on Mercado. Both players were rising for the ball but it's the Croatian who has been given the ticking off from the referee, with the Argentine left blowing on the deck.
As mentioned, we've had some standout examples of quality in and around the box at times, but you cannot ignore that there have also been plenty of lapses in concentration coupled with defensive mishaps. It's hard to believe that this contest still remains goalless...
YELLOW CARD! Rebic goes into the book for a poor challenge on Salvio, right under the nose of Argentina coach Sampaoli, who is also calling for the VAR to be used.
This has been a close encounter as we move in on the end of the first half. Both sides have had chances and you get the feeling that it might be a mistake that decides the contest tonight. Both teams have been prone to errors, but have also offered glimpses of class.
We've just descended into a quiet lull here with both teams focusing on moving into the break on level terms.
We're going to have two minutes of additional time in the first period...
CHANCE! Modric leads a blistering counter and cuts the ball across the pitch into the path of Rebic, who should break away into space and on towards Caballero. His first touch is a shock, however, leading the winger to eventually thrash over the bar. Modric is absolutely furious.
HALF TIME: ARGENTINA 0-0 CROATIA
That was an intriguing first half then. It was littered with errors from both sides but it has certainly led to chances. Somebody should be ahead, but somehow we are still goalless in Nizhny Novgorod.
You might argue that Croatia have perhaps shaded things in terms of quality. Argentina have been unable to get either Aguero and Messi into the game. This second half might just be one for the likes of Ever Banega.
At times the Argentina 3-4-3 is getting caught out, especially in the wide areas. It will be intriguing to see if Sampaoli opts to persist with it during the second period. Croatia will be pleased with the danger they have shown on the break.
SECOND HALF! Here we go then, Argentina kick the second half into action...
Croatia have dropped off again much like they did early in the first half. The onus is obviously on Argentina to take something away from this encounter. They are in desperate need of points with Nigeria still to come after this game.
Acuna decides to gamble on the space down the left and he aims to break beyond Lovren, although the centre-back is across quick to cover.
YELLOW CARD! Mercado gets caught out in the centre of the pitch and is forced to cynically bring down Rebic as the Croatian aims to lead a counter.
GOAL! ARGENTINA 0-1 CROATIA (ANTE REBIC)
Wow, this is true howler from Argentine stopper Caballero. Rebic chases the ball down, forcing Mercado to send the ball back to his stopper. The keeper tries to send a cheeky chip back over the forward's head into the path of his defender, but the chip goes horribly wrong and lands straight into the path of Rebic. The youngster still has so much work to do, but is able to crash a first-time volley over Caballero and into the net. A beautiful strike and pure inspiration from the striker.
Argentina have it all to do now, finally one of the mistakes in this contest has proved costly. It was a howler from the keeper, but what a strike from Rebic. Sampaoli's men really need to open up now. Croatia might just be licking their lips.
Amazing scenes inside the stadium as the Argentine fans are singing their hearts out despite this rather shocking second-half showing from La Albiceleste.
The opener has seen Croatia retreat marginally to invite Argentina on. Dalic's men are clearly going for the counter now that they have the lead.
SAVES! Finally some quality as Higuain drives down the left before cutting the ball back for Meza, who sees his shot saved at point-blank range by Subasic. The stopper is there again to thwart Messi on the rebound from just a few inches out from goal.
What a game we now have on our hands. Argentina simply need three points from this or their World Cup dreams could be over in a flash.
CHANCE! Rakitic drives a smart ball out to the right for Vrsaljko to collect. The full-back then turns it into the box for the run of Mandzukic, but he can only drive his shot into the side-netting. A great move, though.
SUBSTITUTION: Argentina make another attacking change as Perez is replaced by striker Paulo Dybala.
These changes do not really appear to be helping the Argentines, who are playing like a collection of individuals as opposed to a team as things stand.
CLOSE! Croatia break with plenty of Argentinean players caught up the pitch. The ball is driven across the box for Kramaric, but he takes too long on the ball and is eventually tackled by Mercado.
Argentina are just starting to get caught in the wide areas as they try to swamp forward. Again Kramaric breaks away on the left side, but he is soon dispossessed by Mercado again.
There will not be any turf left on the touchline when Sampaoli is done stomping up and down this evening. His side look bereft of ideas and they look likely to be relying on a favour from Nigeria tomorrow or Croatia a little later next week should they want to progress.
Lovren has been quietly brilliant in the heart of defence. Pavon looks to skip into space beyond the backline, but the Liverpool defender produces a standout sliding tackle to send the ball away for a corner.
GOAL! ARGENTINA 0-2 CROATIA (LUKA MODRIC)
What a way to potentially end this evening. Modric finds himself with the ball around 25 yards out from goal and he uses Otamendi as a decoy before bending a world-class finish down into the bottom corner from range. There is absolutely no stopping that from the Real Madrid playmaker. Croatia are heading into the second round with a game to spare!
Croatia are just slowing this game down now as we head toward an inevitable conclusion. Argentina have been shocking here tonight.
YELLOW CARD! Otamendi goes into the book after a coming together around a challenge from Mascherano on Rakitic. Croatia will not mind, they are cruising here.
Sampaoli seems to be the only member of the Argentina unit who hasn't given this up. The coach is full of energy on the sidelines. He might as well have played this evening.
Argentina drive forward on the rare occasion now but Croatia hold firm and Lovren hoofs clear under pressure from Meza.
GOAL! ARGENTINA 0-3 CROATIA (IVAN RAKITIC)
Argentina are caught out with men forward. Caballero makes a brilliant stop to deny Rakitic at the first shot, but Kovacic soon squares him back the rebound and the midfielder pokes home into an empty net. Game over.
FULL TIME: ARGENTINA 0-3 CROATIA
Hmm... Poor Argentina fans. This side was simply brushed aside tonight and you have to wonder where exactly the nation goes now in terms of its footballing identity. They have some world-class players in this squad but it's just not working. Hats off to Croatia, though, who have booked themselves a place in the second round with a game to spare. Argentina can still make it, but qualification is now essentially out of their own hands. That's going to be all from me tonight, thanks for joining us.