2014 World Cup Group A team previews: Croatia
Based on the pedigree of their squad, Croatia have high hopes of reaching the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup, but other factors may come into play against hosts Brazil, Cameroon and Mexico.
The Croatians, who have not reached the last 16 since their impressive third-place finish in the 1998 tournament, face a daunting opener against favourites Brazil in Sao Paulo on June 12 and defeat would put pressure on them to win the remaining two group fixtures against dangerous opponents.
Their preparations will also be challenging, with long-haul flights across Brazil to face Cameroon in the Amazonian city of Manaus on June 18 before taking on the Mexicans in Recife five days later.
The specific jungle climate in Manaus, hot and humid, will take its toll on both teams although Cameroon’s players might find they can deal with it more easily, especially if they played under the hot African sun when they were youngsters.
Croatia, who have qualified for eight out of 10 major tournaments as an independent nation, will also be under considerable pressure from their fans and media to snap an underachieving streak, if not to emulate past glory.
Having missed Euro 2000, the Croatians were knocked out in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, when they beat more fancied Italy but lost to Ecuador and Mexico.
Croatia had the same fate in Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup before they lost a dramatic Euro 2008 quarter-final to Turkey.
They then failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and could not get past the group stage in Euro 2012 after being pitted with eventual winners Spain and runners-up Italy.
Croatia will sorely miss their top scorer Mario Mandzukic in the opening game against Brazil, with the towering Bayern Munich striker suspended after getting sent off in the final qualifier against Iceland.
Much will depend on how quickly their coach Niko Kovac, who took over from Igor Stimac shortly before Croatia’s 2-0 aggregate play-off win over Iceland, adapts to the challenges of managing a talented squad during a tournament.
Kovac’s only prior coaching experience was a good start in the qualifying campaign for the Euro 2015 Under-21 finals, when he racked up four wins in as many games before he was promoted to take Stimac’s place at the most critical stage of Croatia’s qualifying campaign.
The former defensive midfielder restored order in the dressing room after the Croatians almost fell apart under Stimac, who lost four of his last six games in charge and, more importantly, his authority in the dressing room.
Playmaker Luka Modric will have to fire on all cylinders for Croatia to navigate the group and Kovac also has few world class options in defence, missing banned stalwart Josip Simunic.
There is plenty of depth up front, however, in the proven scorers of Ivica Olic, Eduardo da Silva and Nikica Jelavic, supported by the tried and trusted attacking midfielder Ivan Rakitic. Mandzukic will also be vital once he has served his one-match ban.
The youth is personified by talented 20-year-old central midfielder Mateo Kovacic, who burst into the spotlight in qualifying, and by defender Dejan Lovren, who found his feet in the Premier League at Southampton.
In the final analysis, Croatia are capable of advancing into the business end of the tournament if they can produce their best football while managing huge expectations at home to rekindle some of the 1998 gloss.
Five to watch:
Darijo Srna, right-back (Shakhtar Donetsk); age 32; 111 caps. Croatia’s captain has been a pillar in the past decade and his raids down the right flank were instrumental in qualifying. Good from set pieces, has excellent vision and pulls the strings along with Luka Modric. Scored 21 international goals and has played more than 404 games with his club, winning seven Ukrainian league titles and five cups.
Ivan Rakitic, midfielder (Sevilla); age 26; 60 caps. The most versatile player in Croatia’s squad is capable of playing on either flank or as a central midfielder. The crafty dribbler was caught in a late night partying stint at previous club Schalke before a big game and temporarily dropped from the first team. Flourished again in the Spanish top flight.
Luka Modric, midfielder (Real Madrid); age 28; 73 caps. The dynamo of Croatia’s engine room, Modric has won a fierce battle for a place in Real Madrid’s team this season after struggling in the early stages following his 2012 move from Tottenham Hotspur. Modric’s selfless work, tireless running and crisp passing will make him the driving force of his country’s bid to reach the knockout stages in his fourth major tournament.
Ivan Perisic, midfielder (Wolfsburg); age 25; 27 caps. The winger is as talented as he is inconsistent. Frequent dips in form have forced him to move from Borussia Dortmund to Bundesliga rivals Wolfsburg, where he has done reasonably well in his first season. Could be coach Niko Kovac’s trump card if he hits top form in the finals.
Mario Mandzukic, striker (Bayern Munich); age 28; 48 caps. The focal point of Croatia’s attack but will be suspended from the World Cup opening match against hosts Brazil. A prolific scorer who has spearheaded Croatia’s qualifying campaign with vital goals in several games as well as assists to his teammates.
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Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM