Croatia Should Look to Their Inherent Quality as a Signal of Their Potential in Russia This Summer
| Croatia, sitting just outside the upper echelons of World Cup favourites, are considered something of a dark horse ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia. In fact, we’ve tipped them as worth looking at in our World Cup betting tips. Despite a resounding play-off win and signs of genuine progress under a new manager, the focus is still on them being an ageing team often undermined by internal conflict. But is there more to them than that?
It may have taken an extra-time goal by Ricardo Quaresma to give Portugal a 1-0 win over Croatia in the second round of the European Championships in France two years ago, but Croatia only had themselves to blame. Portugal stifled the life out of the game and Croatia lacked the bravery to move out of a state of conservatism. They were the better side but they didn’t take enough risks. It is something Croatian fans are tired of seeing.
Ultimately they failed because of themselves and not because of the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and his side, which would have been easier to take. With a World Cup qualifying campaign to follow, more expansive play in a team and a midfield built around Luka Modric was expected. But qualification would prove something of a struggle.
Ante Cacic was never the most popular appointment by the country’s football association board, which includes president Davor Suker. Cacic took over from Niko Kovac, seen in some quarters as a more progressive coach, open to ideas as opposed to the well-travelled and experienced Cacic. But despite reaching Euro 2016, he was a man who would be afforded little leeway by the nation’s fans and media.
Group I included an Iceland team that had caught the imagination in France as well as considerable opposition in the likes of Ukraine and Turkey. At the same time, qualification for major tournaments is always what is expected from a passionate home support. Realists knew it was not a sure thing, but expectations of a team imbued with talent, not just of Modric, but also Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic and Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic, believed they should have been in the mix.
Their campaign opened in disappointing fashion. Despite dominating Turkey in terms of possession and shots on goal at the Stadion Maksimir, they had to settle for a 1-1 draw. It was not even three months since their exit against Portugal in France, yet there was still not enough incisiveness in their approach play, despite starting as the brighter of the two sides.
The side’s form did improve incrementally, however. Kosovo, who would ultimately finish bottom of the group with just a solitary point and a goal difference of -21, lived up to their minnows title in a 6-0 home defeat. An away win over Finland, and home wins over Iceland and Ukraine, gave them some of their swagger back. It was short lived. When they travelled to Reykjavik, they were undone by an organised, hard-working Iceland team.
This was followed up by an unconvincing 1-0 win at home to Kosovo. The writing was on the wall when Cacic brought his side to north-west Turkey and defeat in Eskisehir meant Cacic had one game to save his job. That game was a home match against Finland. A 1-1 draw saw Cacic lose his job after a crisis meeting and Croatia’s chances of World Cup qualification were distinctly in the balance.
In came Zlato Dalic for the last group game, a fixture away to Ukraine that had to be won to have any chance of qualifying. Despite what was a particularly difficult prospect, Dalic’s side won with two goals in eight second-half minutes from Andrej Kramaric in what was a tight game up until that juncture. Their play-off against Greece was over after the first leg, a 4-1 win at home. The bounce was back, and when Greece threw everything at them in the second leg, Croatia were impregnable in defence.
If Iceland gave them nightmares in qualifying, the fact that they drew them in Group D of the World Cup proper may be part of the reason that a look at the likes of the Oddschecker website have them outside of the main favourites in Russia. Familiar foes aside, it is not just the prospect of renewing rivalries with Heimir Hallgrimsson’s side.
Their opening game of the tournament will be a difficult tie against Nigeria in the Kaliningrad Stadium on the Baltic coast. Five days later and if everything is on the line for Croatia, the last thing they will want is to require a result of some description against Argentina. If that is the case, it will be a daunting task. The importance of their final group game against Iceland will be relative to the preceding games.
Croatia will be likely to line out in a 4-2-3-1 in Russia, with Everton’s Nikola Vlasic looking to light up the tournament; one of few youngsters with the potential to provide something different. Croatia will rely on an experienced side with most players either 29 or older. At 32, this is likely to be Modric’s final World Cup. And with quality still ubiquitous throughout this team, that, and not the age profile, should be the focus of what this team believes they can offer.
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