MOSCOW — Day 8 of World Cup 2018 was defined by Lionel Messi’s continued frustration and the suffering of Argentina fans, who saw their team lose 3-0 to Croatia in a one-sided headliner of the day's triple-header.
Thursday was also defined by the resurgent Paul Pogba and France, which clinched advancement to the knockout stage along with Croatia following a 1-0 win over Peru; and by a brave 1-1 tie earned by Australia against Denmark that keeps the Aussies alive in Group C.
Here are my six thoughts on Day 8:
• Argentina is still alive, but it barely feels like it
Croatia deservedly took down Messi and the Argentines in Nizhny Novgorod, leaving the Argentines with just one point from two games (and a minus-3 goal difference), and once again Messi had little impact on the game. Give credit for that to Croatia, which bottled Messi up defensively, but also blame coach Jorge Sampaoli, who has kept experimenting with lineups since he took over and tried something new again on Thursday, shifting from a four-man back line to a 3-4-3.
Suddenly, Ángel Di María was nowhere to be found (he was an unused substitute). Suddenly in the starting lineup was Enzo Pérez, who wasn’t even in the squad until he was called up to replace the injured Manuel Lanzini (It was Pérez who misfired on a wide-open goal in the first half Thursday).
Even before the game started, Messi looked like a man with a migraine headache. That will only intensify now.
• Croatia was fantastic
Croatia defended well. Croatia attacked well, opening up spaces and taking advantages of mistakes (take a bow, Ante Rebic). Croatia was absolute class, from Luka Modric's individual-effort strike from distance to Ivan Rakitic's poise in front of the goal on strike No. 3. Croatia did everything right and never looked in danger of conceding against a punchless Argentina.
Coach Zlatko Dalic only came into the team at the end of World Cup qualifying, but he rallied Croatia to qualify for Russia 2018 and has clearly stabilized a team that could now make a deep run.
• Sometimes you get a Goycochea; Sometimes you get a Caballero
At World Cup 1990, Argentina famously saw starting goalkeeper Nery Pumpido go out injured in its first game, only for replacement Sergio Goycochea to perform magnificently to help carry the Argentines to the final. But there are two sides to that coin, as we saw in painful detail on Thursday. Argentina lost starting keeper Sergio Romero to injury before the tournament, and even though Romero said he could have come back and been ready for the World Cup, Sampaoli decided to drop him from the squad altogether. The new starter, Willy Caballero, committed a horrific howler against Croatia, gifting Rebic an undercooked lob that Rebic skillfully bent into the Argentina goal.
There will be plenty of questions for Sampaoli on his keeper decisions, not least his call to go with Caballero (a reserve at Chelsea) over Franco Armani (a starter with River Plate). What a mess.
• Paul Pogba is enjoying his soccer more with France than with Manchester United
That’s not exactly hard to do, of course, considering the season just finished at United, but the Pogba we saw on Thursday once again made the difference in the moments that mattered. Given the freedom to advance higher up the field with France, Pogba came up huge to win the ball deep in Peru’s half and set up France’s opening goal.
There were other moments, too, when Pogba caused danger on the ball and permitted himself a piece of flair—just a little hop and a skip—that created space and showed he’s enjoying his football. France has the highest ceiling of any team in this World Cup when Les Bleus are firing on all cylinders. They just need to find that level more consistently as the tournament progresses.
• Australia is the World Cup team most like USA
The Aussies got a hard-earned point against Denmark and actually were the team more likely to grab a winner in the latter stages of the game—thanks largely to the work of exciting 19-year-old Daniel Arzani. Yes, both Australian goals in the tournament have come on penalties, but there’s value in that (and in Mile Jedinak reliably converting them).
The identity of Australia reminds me of the U.S.’s identity when it has been at its best over the years: Team-first, hard to play against, with at least one or two players who can bring something to the game creatively. Australia does not give up, and its point on Thursday means it still has a chance to advance to the round of 16 in its group finale against Peru.
• Peru is out, and that’s a bummer
The Peruvians were such an emotional story, reaching their first World Cup since 1982 and bringing so many thousands of fans to Russia that you couldn’t help but be blown away by the passion they had for their team in the streets here. But Peru was eliminated on Thursday after a 1-0 loss to France, which followed a 1-0 loss to Denmark.
Peru fans will always wonder how things might have been different if Paolo Guerrero had started the first game and, even more importantly, if Christian Cueva had converted a first-half penalty against Denmark that would have given his side a 1-0 lead. Instead, Cueva launched his spot kick over the bar and into orbit, and Peru never did end up finding the back of the net in the games that mattered. We’re raising an Inca Kola to Peru tonight.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.