World Cup Preview – Croatia
Best WC Performance: Third – 1998
Current World Ranking – 20
The Croatian national team as we know it was formed in 1990, prior to the country gaining independence from Yugoslavia. After taking some time to establish themselves, they qualified for the Euro 96 and immediately made their mark on the World stage. Davor Suker’s scoop over Schmeichel and the eye catching red and white chequered jersey helped Croatia become a real neutral’s favourite.
They followed this, two years later, with an astonishing run to the semi-finals at France 98, even taking the lead against the hosts in their last 4 clash. Suker ended the tournament as top scorer and Croatia had developed from plucky underdog to major footballing force.
The years since have seen mixed fortunes for the Croatians. A strong Euro 2012 campaign ended in penalty heartbreak and World Cup dreams have died abruptly at the group stage. Whilst they have yet to match the glories of 1998, they do hold the unusual honour of being the only team to have a player booked three times in one World Cup game thanks to Graham Poll’s legendary error, so in some ways they are winners.
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb).
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Sampdoria), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kijev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Matej Mitrovic (Bruges), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka).
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Schalke), Ante Rebic (Eintracht Frankfurt).
- Vs Nigeria 20:00, 16.06.18 Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
- Vs Argentina 19:00, 21.06.18 Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
- Vs Iceland 19:00, 26.06.18 Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Manager – Zlatko Dalic
Zlatko Dalic will be in the dugout this summer having proven himself the man for the job at the latter end of the qualifying campaign. Brought in hastily before the final match, he guided Croatia past Ukraine in Kiev and in to the play off stages. Here they convincingly dispatched Greece and secured their manager a full time contract.
Dalic’s last four jobs were at Al Faisaly, Al Hilal B, Al Hilal and Al Ain. Exaclty how he ended up in charge of the national side is not immediately clear to me but he’s got the job done so far. I am not overly familiar with the leagues of Saudi Arabia or UAE so I cannot comment much on his managerial style, but the picture on the Croatian Football website suggests he has impressive hair, which is nice.
As mentioned above, qualification was far from smooth sailing for Croatia. In fact their playoff clash, in which they scored all four goals in the first leg, was a breeze in comparison to the negotiation of their group.
They started impressively but suffered a destabilising 90th minute defeat away to eventual group winners Iceland. Another 1-0 defeat in Turkey was followed by the conceding of a 90th minute equaliser at home to Finland. In the end it took a resilient 2-0 victory in the winner takes all tie in Kiev to keep their hopes alive. They will have a chance to avenge their defeat in Reykjavik in their final group game.
Captain – Luka Modric
The captain and crown jewel of the side, Luka Modric, could walk in to almost any side in the world. He has established himself as a firm favourite at Real Madrid with his classy, unassuming style. As a captain he leads by example rather than by making noise. A popular figure in the UK after his time at Tottenham, Modric is the type of player appreciated by supporters but loved by teammates.
Now aged 32, this will likely be the final time we see the classy playmaker on the biggest stage. He may yet arrive with another Champions League medal in his collection. What would he give to add a vintage World Cup to his glowing list of career highlights?
Danger Man – Ivan Rakitic
Croatia’s strength lies in their midfield. Dovetailing with captain Modric will be his club rival, Ivan Rakitic. The Barcelona man offers more class to a midfield that is the envy of many. The 30-year-old has 14 goals for Croatia in 90 caps but his true worth lies in his creativity and link up play. Defences will need to carefully monitor his intelligent forward runs and through balls.
Rakitic has the capability to punish a team when they are least expecting it. If he can supply the ammunition for Juventus hitman Mario Mandzukic, there is a very real possibility that Croatia could advance to the latter stages this summer.
Young Player – Mateo Kovacic
Completing the trio of La Liga midfield stars is Mateo Kovacic. The 23-year-old has established himself amongst the talents and egos at the Bernabeu and is now a key figure for his country.
Already with 39 caps to his name, Kovacic has the chance to elevate himself in to the upper echelons of World football with a successful tournament. To do this he may need to develop his goal threat, having scored only once in the colours of his country so far.
This lack of goals has somewhat hampered his development in Madrid, where his appearances have become infrequent under Zinedine Zidane. Russia 2018 could well be a shop window for Kovacic and he will be eager to impress his current, or potential future, manager.
Premier League Players
The much maligned Dejan Lovren looks set to be the sole Premier League representative in the Croatian squad. His improved form for Liverpool should see him arrive in Russia confident of performing well.
There will be recognisable faces in the form of Modric, Vedran Corluka (injury depending) and Nikola Kalinic, but a lack of any current Premier League superstars. For whatever reason this crop of Croatian internationals has spread itself across the major European leagues without making much of a dent in English football.
My gut instinct tells me that Croatia are going to cause a surprise in Group D and beat Argentina to top spot. They have a talented and capable squad and seem to have a reasonable balance of leaders across the pitch.
The bookies have them down to finish second, and that would seem the logical prediction; but what’s life without risk? Although I wouldn’t say that they are certainties in any of their three fixtures, I cautiously predict that a blend of youth and experience may be reason for Croatia to make a run at the Quarter Finals. This is probably the last time in a generation that they have a realistic chance of success.
My final prediction – 1st in Group – eliminated in last 16 or Quarters
Written by Dan Fox.