NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Lionel Messi’s frustrating international career may be coming to an early and anti-climactic finish after Argentina’s worst loss in World Cup group play in 60 years.
With Diego Maradona watching from the stands, the 2014 runners-up were routed by Croatia 3-0 Thursday. The Croats are moving on to the round of 16.
Messi didn’t get a single shot off in a defeat that pushed Argentina to the brink of elimination. Messi, who turns 31 on Sunday, has never won a major title with Argentina’s senior national team despite of decade of championships with Barcelona and five player of the year awards.
“He is our captain, he leads the team and we quite simply couldn’t pass to him,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said. “We work to give Leo the ball, but the opponent also works hard to prevent him from getting the ball.”
Messi also missed a penalty kick in his team’s opening 1-1 draw against Iceland.
Argentina, hurt by the poor play of goalkeeper Willy Caballero on Thursday, had not lost by such a large margin in the first round since a 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia in 1958. Caballero gained the starting role because of an injury to No. 1 keeper Sergio Romero in the run-up to the tournament.
Argentina, which has not missed the second round since failing to qualify for the 1970 World Cup, has not been eliminated. But the two-time champions need to win their next match against Nigeria on Tuesday, as well as get help from other matches.
Thursday’s humiliating loss came in humiliating fashion for one of soccer’s most storied nations.
Caballero mangled a clearance and kicked the ball toward Croatia defender Ante Rebic, who one-timed it into the net in the 53rd minute.
Caballero buried his face in his hands while a giant television screen showed Maradona doing the same.
“After they scored on us, we were emotionally broken,” Sampaoli said. “I had a lot of hope. I am extremely hurt by this defeat, but I probably didn’t understand the match the way I should have.”
And it got worse as Argentina crumbled, frustrated by the Croatian defense. Modric scored with a hooking shot in the 80th and Ivan Rakitic added the third in stoppage time.
Croatia frustrated Argentina throughout the match and never gave Messi space to operate.
“Argentina wasn’t confused. We were excellent,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said. “We beat a great Argentina with the best player in the world playing, Messi.”
Croatia, which reached the 1998 World Cup semifinals but has not advanced past the group stage since then, will face Iceland on Tuesday in Rostov-on-Don.
“Let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground and prepare for the next matches,” said Modric, the man of the match. “We should be focused on what awaits. Every next game is going to be more difficult, but our main objective has been reached. It looks easy, but it was not that easy.”
Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986 — the last with Maradona as the star player — but has not won any major title in 25 years. The Argentines also lost in the last two Copa America finals.
Australia 1, Denmark 1
Mile Jedinak’s penalty kick gave Australia a 1-1 draw against Denmark and new life at the World Cup on Thursday.
The 38th-minute penalty was set up after Denmark forward Yussuf Poulsen was called for a handball following a video review. Poulsen was also given a yellow card and will be suspended for the team’s final group match against France because of accumulation.
The goal was Jedinak’s second from the spot at this year’s World Cup, and it snapped Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel’s five-match streak of shutouts for the Danes.
Christian Eriksen scored in the opening minutes for Denmark, which has gone unbeaten in 17 straight international matches.
Going into the tournament, No. 36 Australia was the lowest-ranked team in Group C with the others all in the top 12.
With a loss to France in the opener, a defeat Thursday would have made it nearly impossible for the Socceroos to advance to the next stage. Denmark, meanwhile, won its first match against Peru.
Australia lost to 1998 World Cup champion France 2-1 on Saturday in Kazan, with both French goals coming as the result of video technology. But the score didn’t reflect the Socceroos’ gritty defensive performance.
Australia again took a defensive stand against Denmark, which was back at the World Cup after missing out on the tournament in Brazil. The Danes were coming off a 1-0 victory over Peru on Saturday in Saransk. Poulsen, who plays for German club RB Leipzig, scored the lone goal.
It is the fifth World Cup appearance for the Danes, who reached the quarterfinals in 1998.
Australia was also making a fifth trip to the World Cup. The team’s best showing was in the 2006 quarterfinals.
Moments after Mathew Leckie’s header for Australia sailed over the goal, Eriksen sent a left-footed shot over goalkeeper Mathew Ryan’s outstretched arms.
Pione Sisto nearly gave the Danes the advantage just after the halftime break, but his shot went to the right of the goal. Australia added some firepower in the 68th, bringing on 19-year-old Daniel Arzani as both teams scrambled for a winning goal.
Australia lost Andrew Nabbout in the 74th minute with what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder. He was replaced by Tomi Juric.
Denmark’s opening victory over Peru was marred by the loss of starting midfielder William Kvist, who fractured two ribs and is likely to miss the rest of the tournament. He was replaced in the starting lineup against Australia by Lasse Schone.
Denmark’s last loss was in October 2016 against Montenegro, 1-0 in Copenhagen.
The highlight of Group C will be the match between France and Denmark on Tuesday in Moscow. The top finishers in the group will go on to play opponents from Group D, which includes Croatia, Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Eriksen, who plays for Tottenham in England, has scored in 17 of the national team’s last 20 matches.
During World Cup qualifying, he scored 11 goals for the Danes, third-best in Europe behind Poland striker Robert Lewandowski with 16 and Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo with 15.
Now 26, Eriksen was the youngest player at the World Cup in South Africa. He has 79 appearances for the national team and 23 goals.
He was named man of the match on Thursday.
France 1, Peru 0
YEKATERINBURG, Russia — Kylian Mbappe’s first World Cup goal put France into the round of 16.
The teenage forward tapped in a ball headed toward goal in the 34th minute to give France a 1-0 victory over Peru on Thursday.
At 19 years and 183 days, Mbappe became the youngest scorer in France’s World Cup history.
With two wins from two matches in Group C, France is through to the next round with a match to spare while Peru has been eliminated.
France coach Didier Deschamps made a pair of tactical adjustments after an underwhelming performance in the team’s opening win over Australia. He put Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud in the starting lineup but kept his same 4-3-2-1 formation with Giroud out front.
Both used their speed and passing to expose gaps in Peru’s backline.
Paolo Guerrero started for Peru after coming off the bench in the opening loss to Denmark. He came out with energy, but he cooled down after receiving a yellow card in the 23rd minute.
Guerrero nearly missed the World Cup before having his doping ban lifted by a Swiss judge prior to the tournament. France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was one of three opposing captains, along with Australia’s Mile Jedinak and Denmark’s Simon Kjaer, who signed a letter to FIFA supporting the lifting of the ban.
Guerrero had one of Peru’s best chances in the 87th minute from a free kick, but his attempt went right at Lloris.
After getting very little out of the three-prong attack of Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele in their opening win, the French trio was active in Yekaterinburg.
Griezmann had a pair of opportunities stopped within the first 15 minutes, with Mbappe and Dembele consistently getting past Peru’s defense to set up scoring chances.
But it was midfielder Paul Pogba who opened things up for Mbappe’s goal. Pogba beat his defender and found Giroud with a perfect pass. Giroud then chipped it for Mbappe to easily tap it past goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
Energized by the tens of thousands of Peruvian fans, the South Americans tried to match Les Bleus’ intensity early but were outshot 12-10 with only two of Peru’s chances on target, with two others blocked.