The mute prince of world football seemed to know something was wrong from kick-off, a hand to his brow, some whispered words for none but himself, and that was even before Lionel Messi opened his eyes and looked around at the worst Argentina team in memory.
You could say he tried to save them, but really Messi was more like a grief-stricken relative at the bedside, occasionally rubbing a hand while coming to terms with the reality of the situation. It felt like a long time since someone was handing him a goat and asking him to look at the camera over there, indeed there were times when a goat in a blue and white shirt might have been a better option than whatever Jorge Sampaoli was trying to do.
Up in the hospitality seats Diego Maradona had a minder who would ease him gently back when he looked like toppling over the screen in front of him, both expending more nervous energy on this Argentina performance than the man who inherited the No 10 shirt. They are not out yet but a win for Iceland against Nigeria on Friday would put Argentina on the brink, and their destiny in this World Cup finals has already slipped from their control.
Messi had his first shot in the 64th minute, perfectly isolated by what Luka Modric would later describe as the perfect game-plan, and yet it felt like the Argentina captain came onto the pitch with a premonition of what was to come. The old inscrutability had slipped, and instead he seemed to be worrying, and with good reason. Sampaoli’s three-man defence was a disaster, compounded by goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s error for the first goal.
The Argentina coach was a mix of despair and anger on the touchline, responding to Ante Rebic’s first goal by replacing Sergio Aguero before the hour with Gonzalo Higuain, the Manchester City striker returning to the bench in disbelief. The grief at the end from an Argentina support that dominated the Nizhny stadium was real, not the kind confected for the television cameras, at a team so hopelessly configured.
If Argentina kept their masterpiece in the attic, under a dust sheet, then Croatia made the most of their stars, with the second and third goals coming from Modric and Ivan Rakitic. They controlled an Argentinian midfield that was hopelessly out of its depth and Marcelo Brozovic screened off Messi from the game until the little maestro realised that he might as well be stood on the stadium concourse for all the decent service he was getting.
Later Sampaoli would intimate that it was unfair to compare Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo when this current Argentina team was so poor. Yet it was him who called in three new players, two of them over 30 - Gabriel Mercado and Enzo Perez - both of whom looked below the required standard. Paulo Dybala was only his third substitution. Ever Banega and Angel Di Maria did not play a minute and the tone of the questioning from the Argentine media left no doubt where they saw the blame lying.
This was a triumph for the Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic whose team are through to the second round now and vindicated in his decision to send home AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic for defying him during the win over Nigeria. Dalic said he intended to rest his whole team for the third game, which may yet not be the case but even so it will not do Argentina’s chances any favours.
“Emotionally broken” was Sampaoli’s description of his side after Rebic’s goal, a joint enterprise with Caballero whose miscued pass was taken on the volley at hip-height by the wing-back and lashed back past him. It was the confident finish of a player, and a team, without any fears about a match of this kind whereas in Argentina’s ranks there was just hesitation and doubt and then finally, as Nicolas Otamendi struck a ball at Rakitic on the ground, there was anger.
The Manchester City defender was dragged left and right by Modric before he shaped a shot inside Caballero’s post and out of his reach, the game’s outstanding moment. Modric and Rakitic had controlled the game, a reminder to Messi of the standard of support act to which he is accustomed. Somehow he seemed to be on the wrong team, on the wrong side of the argument, well aware that humiliation was looming having dished out humiliations of this kind himself so many times himself.
In the first half, Argentina had created chances - just for the wrong people. Perez, a 32-year-old midfielder with 23 caps before this night and very few goals in his career missed when he had time to stroke the ball inside the post. It was not as if the centre-backs Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren were immune to mistakes, it was just that if they were going to make them Croatia were sure that it would not be when Messi was on the ball.
When Rakitic and the substitute Mateo Kovacic broke away to combine for the former to score, the three goals felt about right - Rakitic had earlier hit the bar with a free-kick. Messi has had 12 shots in the tournament, more than any other player, and no goals. He was straight off at the final whistle, past the cameras and the officials and back into his own black thoughts.
That's all for tonight, folks
What a game. Croatia were brilliant and Argentina were woeful. Rakitic, Rebic and Modric stole the limelight with captivating performances. Tomorrow, people will be talking about Messi and Argentina, but this Croatian team could well be a force to reckon with as the competition goes on.
I'll leave you with Diego Maradona's tears. Good night.
What was wrong with Lionel Messi, asks Daniel Zeqiri
I had almost forgotten about Mark Lawrenson, and maybe that's a good thing. He wasn't the story of this game, and that's how it should be. Yes, there were some less than funny quips, but there was so much going on he barely had time to tie himself in knots. At first he lamented the players going down too easily, but a few meaty tackles soon put that idea to bed. Alan Tyers was right.
Aguero and Mascherano speak
"There is still a chance," says Aguero. "We have to wait for tomorrow's result and then beat Nigeria."
Mascherano added: "After the first goal, everything became complicated. After that, everything changed."
Why are the big teams under-performing?
Argentina's entry will need updating in this article entitled: Why are the World Cup favourites floundering?
They played with three at the back and were cut open time and time again. Mascherano dropped back to help out but by then the team was split in two. They had Dybala, Pavon, Messi and Higuain all playing up top. There was simply no midfield.
"After the first goal, the team was hit hard. In the second half we tried to put on players to turn the game, but it didn't work."
Sampaoli wanted lift-off, but Argentina stalled
Sampaoli continues: "The game plan did not come off. We were very excited before the game, as we wanted to achieve qualification. This result has taken that away. We thought it would be a game that would give us lift-off, but it didn't."
Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli is speaking to the media.
"I am responsible for making the decisions. It isn't human to blame Caballero. I was very hopeful and this defeat really hurts. Of course I didn't see the game going like that. We did not find the best team to accompany Messi."
The Croatians had a go too...
Check out some of these tackles...
It was only a joke, Diego....
Diego Maradona really is crying for Argentina. It's easy to understand why.
Shots aplenty in Nizhny Novgorod
Argentina vs Croatia shots on goal
This is that match in one minute. It really was sublime
— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) June 21, 2018
Joy for Croatia
This was Croatia’s first victory in five attempts against South American nations at the World Cup, having lost each of their previous four.
This is only the second time Croatia have won both of their opening two games at a World Cup, after the 1998 tournament that saw them reach the semi-finals.
Ante Rebic had only ever scored once for Croatia, in a friendly against Liechtenstein back in August 2013. I think this one was better.
Cry for me, Argentina
It's all doom and gloom for Argentina. This was their heaviest defeat in the first round group stages of a World Cup tournament since losing 1-6 to Czechoslovakia in 1958.
They have failed to win either of their opening two group stage matches for the first time since 1974.
Lionel Messi had one shot on goal against Croatia. One.
38 fouls. Seven yellow cards.
22 fouls committed by Croatia and 16 by Argentina.
In the main, Argentina's were much worse, but that is a phenomenal rate of fouling.
It really was a brutal game in Nizhny Novgorod, with tackles flying in everywhere. I've got some stats coming up for you...
That first goal...
Should Rebic have been on the pitch when he scored? Plenty were calling for red, and they may well have been right. Either way, he was on the pitch and took advantage of Caballero's moment of madness. It was a truly brilliant finish, volleying back over Caballero.
The Telegraph's Cesc Fabregas has his say
Fabregas is spot on. Argentina played with five attackers and five defenders. That's an opposition midfielders dream. Argentina were all over the place.
Full Time - Argentina 0 - Croatia 3
Wow. Croatia have taken Argentina to the cleaners. Three goals to nothing, and fully deserved.
94mins -Argentina 0 - Croatia 3
Messi looks miserable. He is kicking the ground. He has hardly seen the ball.
93 mins -Argentina 0 - Croatia 3
Corluka, who has just come on for his 100th Croatian cap has just been carded.
90 mins -Argentina 0 - Croatia 3
Rakitic took the ball and hit it at Caballero. He palmed it into the path of Kovacic, who played it back across goal to Rakitic. He finished into an empty net. 3-0. Argentina look broken.
Argentina 0 - 3 Croatia (Ivan Rakitic, 90 + 1 min)
Goooooal 90 mins -Argentina 0 - Croatia 3
AND IT'S THREE - Rakitic finishes off the break and scores.
89 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
Meza has a shot, but it is palmed away by Subasic. Argentina corner is cleared, and Croatia break........
88 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
There have been an incredible 34 fouls in this match.
21 by Croatia, 13 by Argentina.
87 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
Acuna goes into the book for a foul on Vrsaljko. Six yellow cards in the game.
86 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
Rakitic hits the crossbar. Caballero was beaten as Rakitic hit the ball over a high-leaping wall. What a hit.
85 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
It's all kicking off now. Tempers flaring as Mascherano fouls Rakitic. What happened next? Otamendi fires the ball at Rakitic's head while he is lying on the ground.
Otamendi carded. Croatia free-kick.
82 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
Perisic has come off and is replaced by Real Madrid's Kovacic. Peresic has put in a good shift tonight.
80 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
What a finish!
Modric, outside the area, picks up the ball from Brozovic, and curls the ball to the right, past the outstretched Caballero and into the inside side-netting. He runs away with his arms in the air. Croatia are going bonkers. 2-0 they lead. And they deserve it too.
Argentina 0 - 2 Croatia (Luka Modric, 80 min)
GOAL 80 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 2
.... And Modric fires Croatia into a 2-0 lead!
79 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Rakitic plays a one-two with Brozovic and shoots, but it is well blocked by Mercado. Croatia on the attack again...
79 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
The corner comes to nothing, and is cleared by the first man. Perisic,who has been very good tonight, runs up the other end, but fouls Otamendi on his way through.
77 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Pavon breaks down the left and is slide tackled by Lovren. Good tackle. Corner Argentina.
75 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
It's all heating up here. Rakitic went down in the centre circle, but Croatia continued to attack. They made it all the way to the Argentina area, lost the ball, and then pleaded for the referee to blow for the original foul, which he did. Argentina players furious. Rakitic is winded, but looks fine to continue.
74 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Krameric replaced Rebic, the goalscorer, just before that chance. Croatia tightening up now for the last 15 minutes.
72 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Mascherano disposessed by Mandzukic and the ball is crossed to Krameric, who tries to do it all on his own but cant get a cross in.
71 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Dybala looks bright and fires just over the crossbar from outside the area. Argentina really really need a goal if they want to make life easier for themselves against Nigeria. This group is wide open.
70 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Calamity Caballero, they'll be calling him.
68 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Enzo Perez makes way for Paulo Dybala. Argentina are throwing everything at Croatia now.
Messi, Dybala, Higuain and Pavon all looking for an equaliser.
67 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Marcos Acuna is fouled by Vrsaljko, who is shown a yellow card. That's the fourth this game.
66 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Another chance for Mandzukic and Croatia. He nips in front of Tagliafico but shoots wide.
65 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
More fouls. This time Mandzukic is used as a climbing frame by Otamendi.
64 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
......And he nearly does! Meza fires a shot against Subasic, the ball bounces out to Messi and he shoots at goal but Rakitic gets in the way and it flies out for a corner.
It's warming up in Nizhny Novgorod
63 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Messi can't find a way through. He tries to dance through the Croatian defence but is held up by a combination of Lovren and Vrsaljko.
Argentina need their man to step up......
62 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Here is a picture of that fantastic goal by Rebic.
58 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Mandzukic is yellow carded for a clumsy challenge. The Argentina fans have really ramped up the noise now.
"The support is much better than the team," says Wilson.
"Not difficult," quips Lawro.
56 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
That really was a fine finish from Rebic. For all the calamity of Caballero, he watched the ball onto his foot perfectly, and volleyed the ball back from where it came.
55 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Another Argentina substitution. Pavon comes on for Salvio ten minutes into the second half.
Argentina chasing this game now.
55 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
Aguero has been taken off and replaced by Gonzalo Higuain.
That change was being made before the clanger from Caballero, and you can't help but feel sorry for Aguero. He's hardly seen the ball.
GOAL 52 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 1
What a howler from Caballero.
He has inexplicably tried to chip a pass to Mercado, but its been lofted into the air and Rebic fires it back over his head. What a finish. And from a man lucky to still be on the pitch.
Argentina 0 - 1 Croatia (Ante Rebic, 53 min)
51 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Another cynical foul. Mercado yellow carded for bringing down Rebic. He swiped across Rebic's knees, just to make sure he wouldn't get through.
"That was like Boudica's chariot," says Steve Wilson.
"Whoever that was," replies our Lawro.
49 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Peresic fires in a cross towards Rebic, but the danger is snuffed out by Otamendi, who hoofs it away. Messi recieves the ball but is brought down immediately by Brozovic.
47 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
The teams are still lively and fouls have been committed on both sides.
Messi had only 20 touches in the first half. His midfield need to get a hold on this game if he is to have any chance of scoring.
Peep Peep (again)
No changes from either side, but you'd imagine that there won't be any Croatian strikers refusing to come on tonight. That Argentina defence needs to buckle up.
Some pictures from tonight's game
Rebic has been busy tonight and is lucky to still be on the pitch after a nasty tackle on Salvio.
And here is that miss from Mandzukic. It looks terrible when you see it like this.
Try the Telegraph's new game!
We have been hard at work creating this magnificent game for the World Cup - You are the VAR.
No big decisions in this game so far, but prove that you have what it takes to be a VAR official by trying it here.
For what it's worth, I scored 9/10.
test - do not delete
Phwoar...what a game. Absolutely breathless stuff.
Shearer says Argentina look average. Lineker says it's hard to remember an Argentina side as poor as this. That seems slightly hyperbolic, but their defence has been poor and they haven't got the ball to Messi and Aguero enough.
Chance 45 mins +1 - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Lovely ball froom Modric to Rebic. Again, the Argentine defence are cut open. Rebic tries to cut it back but the ball gets stuck under his feet and he hits it high over the bar.
45 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Meza is a lucky boy. He raked his studs into Brozovic while chasing down the ball and VAR had to have a look. No further action.
42 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
The two number 18's, Salvio and Rebic are having a great battle out there. No handbags yet, but Salvio is lucky to win a foul after going down just outside his own box.
39 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Salvio caught by Rebic nastily. Rebic turned his back on the Argentine and sent his studs into his calf. Yellow card for Rebic. Sampaoli was calling for VAR to have a look.
36 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Mercado is down, having taken a big hit from Rebic.
Everyone is taking the chance to have a rest. What a game we've had so far. Unbelievably, it's still nil-nil.
Another Chance - 34 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Mandzukic with a free header five yards out, but can't steer it into the goal. That would have been his 31st goal for Croatia. Fantastic cross from Vrsaljko, catching the Argentine defence sleeping again.
Lawrenson says: "Can you imagine Shearer in the studio?" Shearer would have buried that.
Sol Campbell is enjoying this one
Argentina v Croatia Love this game skill passion and little bit of afters in tackles! You got to look after yourself in this type of game!
— Sol Campbell (@SolManOfficial) June 21, 2018
Hope you're following the Telegraph coverage, Sol.
Chance - 30 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
What a miss!
Perez shoots wide of an empty net, after Aguero bullies one of the centre backs off the ball and squares it his way. Subasic was caught in between. What a chance. What a waste.
28 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Argentina break again, with Messi on the right. This time he tries to find Aguero in the middle but it flies over his head and lands safely in Subasic's hands.
27 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Good build up from Argentina. Aguero sprints down the left, beating Vrsaljko, and tries to cross the ball to Messi. It is intercepted and headed out for a corner which.....goes straight into the side netting. Meza the culprit.
25 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Croatia are still threatening the Argentina defence. Rebic and Rakitic in particular have been fantastic so far. It has been a quiet start for Lionel Messi.
A familiar face in the crowd
Diego Maradona is in the house. Before kick off he blew kisses to adoring fans and waved a 'Messi' shirt around his head.
21 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Drama.... Caballero plays a hospital pass to Tagliafico inside the area and Mandzukic pounces. However the tackle on Tagliafico is deemed a foul. Argentina look shaky at the back tonight.
19 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Mascherano deliberately brings down Modric to stop a Croatia attack, and again players crowd the referee. It is a foul, and nothing more.
17 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Perez slides in dangerously on Ivan Rakitic, leaving the Barcelona midfielder on the floor. Players from both sides crowd the referee but no card is given. There is a bit of an edge developing in this game.
13 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Chance for Argentina. Maximiliano Meza finds space in the middle of the box, but the ball is heroicly blocked by Dejan Lovren.
12 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Lionel Messi has his first chance. A ball dinked over the top by Meza is just too hard to control properly, and the chance is squandered.
11 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
A fantastic ball from Rakitic to Vrsaljko has cut open the Argentina defence. Vrsaljko crosses to Rebic who can't steer it goalwards. A lively start here, with Croatia looking brighter. The Argentinian three-man defence does not look assured.
9 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
It's Manzukic down now, his foot being trod on by Tagliafico. He is fine, too.
8 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Mandzukic treaeds on Otamendi's foot, and the latter goes down in pain.
"At least he's not a big, strong centre-half," jokes Lawrenson, as the big, strong centre-half rolls around.
6 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Mascherano blasts the corner away and all the way to Croatian goalkeeper Subasic. Croatia try to break but are caught offside.
5 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Perisic with an early strike across goal. The Argentina defence opened up and Perisic was played down the left hand side. Caballero palms away for a corner. Modric to take.
3 mins - Argentina 0 - Croatia 0
Mark Lawrenson says there is something in the air tonight inside the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. The stadium is rocking and both teams look lively so far.
Ravsham Irmatov, from Uzbekistan blows his whistle and Croatia, dressed all in black, kick off, going left to right.
Time for a sing song
Argentina have the Himno Nacional Argentino, and Croatia the Lijepa naša domovino - which means 'Our beautiful.'
But playing them out is Seven Nation Army - a proper tune to hype the crowd up. I'm pretty certain neither the Croatian fans nor the Argentinian fans have changed the lyrics to 'Oh Jeremy Corbyn.'
Who are you backing?
The Croatian football federation have run a twitter poll on tonight's game.
Unsurprisingly, Croatia are favourites.
— HNS | CFF (@HNS_CFF) June 21, 2018
Cesc Fabregas on Lionel Messi
Telegraph columnist wrote a fantastic piece on his friend and former teammate Lionel Messi.
Tick Tock, tick tock
On BBC One Tomasz Schafernaker has finished his weather report without swearing, which is good, and the coverage is about to begin.
While you wait
The Telegraph has launched a fantastic interactive and you should really give it go.
You are the VAR. Follow the link below.
test - do not delete
Argentina: Meza in, Di Maria out
— FIFA World Cup �� (@FIFAWorldCup) June 21, 2018
Jorge Sampaoli has given Independiente forward Maximiliano Meza the left wing berth for tonight's game in place of Angel Di Maria. The 25-year-old has leapfrogged Boca Juniors' Cristian Pavon into the starting XI.
The Argentina team is: Caballero; Tagliafico, Otamendi, Mercado; Acuna, Perez, Mascherano, Salvio; Meza, Messi; Aguero
Croatia team news
Croatia have announced their line up for tonight's game.
Subasic, Strinic, Vida, Lovren, Vrsaljko, Brozovic, Rakitic, Perisic, Modric, Rebic, Mandzukic.
— HNS | CFF (@HNS_CFF) June 21, 2018
The teams have arrived
Argentina and Croatia have both arrived at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Teams to come shortly
— Selección Argentina (@Argentina) June 21, 2018
— HNS | CFF (@HNS_CFF) June 21, 2018
It's all over at the Ekaterinburg Arena
France have beaten Peru 1-0 and have reached the last 16 of the World Cup. Kylian Mbappe has become their youngest ever scorer at a World Cup, poking home from a couple of yards out in the 34th minute.
Peru, and their tearful captain Paolo Guerrero, are out.
Mark Lawrenson is back in the BBC commentary box tonight, alongside Steve Wilson. The former Liverpool defender has been blasted on social media for his grumpy demeanour during the Belgium vs Panama game, as well as for his poor jokes and his apparently shallow insight.
This week, Alan Tyers came to his defence, in a piece which you can read here.
If tonight, all eyes are on Messi, all ears will be on Lawrenson.
Good afternoon, football fans
Hola, zdravo, hello. Welcome to Argentina vs Croatia - the 23rd game of the 2018 World Cup.
This match should be a real cracker, with both teams vying for the top spot in group D ahead of Nigeria and Iceland.
Tonight, at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium we should see lots of expansive, expressive football and hopefully some goals. Argentina's Angel Di Maria looks likely to drop to the bench. In his place will be 22-year-old Cristian Pavon, the Boca Juniors forward who once expressed his love for arch rivals River Plate.
Joining him in attack will be Sergio Aguero and their captain, Lionel Messi. There has been a huge amount of attention on the Barcelona forward since the Iceland game, where he missed penalty and failed to score in 11 shots.
Looking ahead to tonight, the stats are on Messi’s side: he has scored in each of his two previous appearances against Croatia, including his first ever goal for Argentina back in March 2006.
Yesterday in the Croatian press conference, midfielder Ivan Rakitic said: “Tomorrow will be a beautiful day. Croatia needs a perfect performance against Argentina.”
In their last match against Nigeria, they won at a canter, and posed a real threat in the middle of the park. A spine of Subasic, Lovren, Rakitic, Modric and Mandzukic is pretty fearsome, and the Argentines will not be treating them lightly.
One man they won’t need to worry about is Nikola Kalinic. The striker warmed up against Nigeria, but then told coach Zlatko Dalic he had a back issue and refused to come on. He was later sent home.
As omens go, it’s not brilliant for Croatia: they have lost all four of their World Cup meetings with South American sides, and haven’t won back-to-back World Cup games since the 1998 tournament.
Stay tuned for the team news as we get it, and in the meantime, why not join Alistair Tweedale for the last 15 minutes of France vs Peru.