The road to Russia
To say that Croatia huffed and puffed to World Cup qualification would be an understatement. 20 points in 10 games tells only half the story: they were close to missing on the play-offs altogether. Two away losses to Iceland and Turkey in the latter half of the group stage games were followed up by a surprising 1-1 draw to Finland, where they conceded a late equaliser.
The federation reacted by replacing manager Ante Čačić with Zlatko Dalić, just days before a crunch game against Ukraine. They won that thanks to two second-half goals from Mario Mandžukić, received the best play-off draw – a tie against Greece – and promptly dispatched them 4-1 at home to go through. The ends may justify the means, but it was no simple task as predicted.
How do they play?
Croatia are blessed with a plethora of midfield riches that most teams in the World Cup would envy. Fitting them all into the first team, however, is a difficult proposition. While the side picks itself at the back, to a large extent, it is the midfield and attack that presents the greatest chance of success – and yet, a dilemma.
Given that Dalić has only been manager for three games, his preferred style is still a question mark. But Croatia’s best chance of success comes from a cohesive midfield. Playing through them, or Ivan Perišić on the wings, could be more productive, allowing Mario Mandžukić to get the goals up top. Whether they play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, it is the balance in midfield that will allow the side to flourish. One hopes Dalić will find a way.
Unfortunately, Dalić is unproven, and may not be helped by a shaky, ageing defence. There is no doubt that Croatia will not be overawed by their rivals, but whether they can help themselves is another question.
Who is their star player?
The country possess plenty of technically sound midfielders, but there have been few like Luka Modrić. Classy and sublime for Real Madrid, he has been one of the best in his position in his generation. His country’s chances depend on him running the show in the centre of the park. At 32, this might be his World Cup swansong, and he’d want to go out having done himself and his country proud.
How far will they go?
Unfortunately for Croatia, their group is one of the most well-balanced, and trickiest to predict.
Argentina are by far the favourites, Iceland are running on team spirit and a narrative that continues to defy, while Nigeria have the individual talent to pose trouble. They could struggle to defend against Nigeria’s counter or to break down Iceland’s defence. Considering Iceland finished ahead of Croatia in qualifying, having both been in the same group, it is a warning sign that talent alone may not be enough to take them through. Hopes depend on their ability to take three points from the Nigeria clash in the first game.
If Dalić is able to harness his array of talents and implement a positive attitude, it could do a world of good. With key players such as Modrić, Mandžukić, and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić now in their thirties, this is arguably the last chance to make good of this particular crop of Croatian stars. Unfortunately, a lack of identity and style may prove their final undoing. If they are able to top the group, they could make it to the quarters; but a group stage exit seems most likely.
What should we watch out for?
Aside from Modrić and Rakitić, expect Ivan Perišić to do well. Scorer of two goals in the Euros, Perišić brings excellent crosses and a penchant for a great goal to the table, and his partnership with Mandžukić could be key to success. A wild-card could be Andrej Kramarić, if given the chances: he was scorer of both goals against Ukraine and has been a solid forward for Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. This might be his chance to shine.
However, there remain concerns of Croatia’s aggressive fanbase, some of whom made their mark in a fiery way in Euro 2016. Support remains divided over the controversial federation; there is politics involved and plenty of infighting. It is not the best way to go into a World Cup, and there may be undertones of trouble if Croatia get off to a bad start. The players deserve much more, but Croatia seem more likely to make a mark off-pitch via pyrotechnics than anything else. This writer hopes he’s proven wrong.