Up two after 25 minutes, Barcelona looked en route to a typical Blaugrana Saturday. Messi was on the board as was Pedro, the young Spaniard with only his fourth goal for the season. Against a team averaging fewer than a goal-and-a-half per game, it should have been enough, particularly considering Real Sociedad was unlikely to keep Spain’s leaders off the scoresheet over the final 65 minutes. (Barcelona came into the game averaging 2.8 goals-per-65 league minutes.)
Even when Gonzalo Castro pulled one back for Sociedad minutes before half time, Sociedad could not have predicted they were on their way to a 3-2 victory over the previous undefeated Barcelona. It was only after 11 minutes of the second half that La Real could have started to dream, with a sending off leaving the hosts to play the final third of the match up a man. Castro added a second seven minutes later, and in stoppage time, Imanol Agirretxe finally put a “1” in Barcelona’s loss column.
Barcelona’s only other loss this season had been to Celtic in Champions League group play.
After the match, Tito Vilanova said he’d cautioned Gerard Piqué and halftime. Something about the match must have convinced the Barcelona head coach to reiterate the obvious. Carrying a caution into the final 45, Piqué couldn’t afford any mistakes. Yet only 11 minutes into the second period, the Barcelona defender was gone after taking down Carlos Vela.
It was the break Sociedad needed. So were the posts Messi and Pedro hit. So was the incredible performance from Castro. So was a defensive performance that limited Barcelona to three shots on goal. Not all of these breaks were luck, but for Sociedad to pull of this upset, they needed a number of things to go their way, not the least of which was their own resilient performance.
Such is the nature of unexpected results. They usually require a number of coincidental events to line up. On Saturday in San Sebastian, that’s exactly what happened.
Real Sociedad’s three unexpected points vaulted them to fifth (temporarily) while Barcelona must remain content with an 11-point lead on second place Atlético Madrid.
Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.
“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”
[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]
Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.
And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:
“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.
“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”
Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.
That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.
There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.
[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]
Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.
The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.
“Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”
Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”
That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni.
Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.
“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”
Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.
Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.
Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.
[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]
Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.
Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.
Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.
There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.
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Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.
Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.
Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.
Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.
[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]
Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.
His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.
[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]
But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.
The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.
It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.