Argentina v Croatia – Super Mario to star for underrated Blazers

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ARGENTINA were unimpressive in their opening Group D encounter with Iceland. Can the two-time World Cup winners put on a better show against Croatia on Thursday in  Nizhny Novgorod. Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) previews the game.

Argentina v Croatia | Thursday 21st June 2018, 19:00 | BBC

Argentina’s 1-1 draw with Iceland in Moscow on Saturday exposed their overreliance on Lionel Messi.

The Barcelona star saw his penalty saved by Hannes Thor Halldorsson, but he was still by far his team’s brightest performer, the only one prepared to take players on.

The rest of his teammates – full-backs Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Tagliafico – very rarely stretched the play as they should have done, while Jorge Sampaoli’s decision to start two holding midfielders in Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia contributed to a static performance.

The intention of almost every player was to play it short to Messi and so their opponents were able to surround him with three or four players at a time.

We saw an improvement when deep-lying playmaker Ever Banega and winger Cristian Pavon came off the bench and Argentina aren’t a bad side – they outshot Iceland 27-8 and managed 12 efforts from inside the box – but it’s important to assess them relative to the odds available.

The best prices on Sampaoli’s side winning in Nizhy Novgorod is 11/10 – but opponents Croatia, who top Group D after a 2-0 win over Nigeria, are too good to be considered underdogs.

Croatia set to qualify

The Blazers did face an abysmal Nigeria side, true. Given that none of the top five favourites to win the tournament won their opening match however, they surely deserve credit for their professionalism.

The lack of intent from their opponents can be partially attributed to the passing ability of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who used the ball as well as one might expect from a pair of Champions League winners.

Sime Vrsaljko put in a strong shift at right-back, left-back Ivan Strinic won plenty of aerial duels, Ante Rebic looked full of energy on the left-wing while centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida dealt with everything that came their way.

Had right winger Ivan Perisic’s first half effort been a yard lower, or had Andrej Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic been a little more clinical in the final third, the Croats could have had a margin of victory that better reflected their dominance.

They could potentially have created more chances, but instead chose to manage proceedings and conserve energy for this game.

Victory here would not only guarantee their place in the Last 16, it would also put them in a very strong position to become group winners.

Backing them could be the best way forward, but where is the value?

The betting angle

Argentina looked vulnerable at set pieces in the opener and given that they don’t have the biggest players, that trend could continue.

6’3” Mario Mandzukic, who had the eighth most headed efforts in Serie A last season and has scored 202 career goals in all competitions for club and country, is an intriguing 3/1 with Betfair to score anytime.

Unibet’s 27/5 on a Croatia win to nil might catch the eye, given that nine of their last 12 victories have come without conceding and the Argies have managed just 20 goals in their last 19 competitive games.

For those more cautious, we’ll recommend the Double Chance – Croatia or Draw at 17/20 – with Marathon; it would have landed in seven of the Blazers’ last nine games while backing against an Argentina win would have paid off in six of their last 10 outings.

Best Bets

Argentina v Croatia – Mario Mandzukic to score at anytime (3/1 Betfair)

Argentina v Croatia – Croatia win to nil (27/5 Unibet)

Argentina v Croatia – Croatia double chance (17/20 Marathon)

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