The Czech Republic take on Croatia in an eagerly anticipated Group D encounter tonight in Euro 2016. The Czechs will look to break an unenviable record of having never won against the Croats in two previous encounters, having drawn once and lost once. Tonight’s encounter will see the Czechs under a greater degree of pressure since they lost their opening encounter against the defending champions Spain. Although the Czechs survived a barrage of attacks, a late goal by Gerard Pique left them short-changed in the end.
The Croatians, on the other hand, got off to a winning start courtesy a screamer from Luka Modric, which shall be right up there come the end of Euro 2016 in the goals of the tournament category. The stunning volley from the Real Madrid ace earned all points for Croatia in their opening encounter and leaves them more comfortably placed compared to the Czechs.
Let us take a look at 5 players who we think shall play a decisive role in determining the outcome of today’s match.
#1 Luka Modric
Quite simply, one of the best pass-masters of the modern game, Modric’s goal against Turkey sealed all the points for his side. The 25-metre volley from the diminutive Croat is surely one of the goals of the tournament and showed the world what Modric brings to a team beyond passing. Croatia will want Modric to score tonight, as they have never lost a game when he has scored (Won 10 Drawn 1).
Against Turkey, Modric’s superb vision for a pass was on display again, as he completed 52 out of 57 attempted passes, 24 of which were in the final third. Modric is also an asset to have while the team is under pressure since he never shirks his defensive duties.
In their opening match, Modric made 4 interceptions and 3 clearances, impressive statistics for a predominantly attack minded player. The Real Madrid star is a well-known figure in the footballing fraternity, being a lynchpin in midfield for the Spanish side, alongside Toni Kroos of Germany.
Their combined vision and eye for a through ball have seen Real win their much coveted ‘La Decima’ or tenth Champions League title in 2013-14. They followed up the success of the 10th Champions League conquest by winning Real’s 11th in 2015-16.
30-year-old Modric made his international debut in 2006 and has gone on to represent his country 90 times. Having reached the wrong side of 30, the visionary midfielder known as ‘Cruyff of the Balkans’ will look to reciprocate his success at club level on the international stage too.
#2 Ivan Rakitic
Sitting alongside Luka Modric in the heart of Croatia’s midfield will be Ivan Rakitic. The other half of the visionary Croat duo, Rakitic is the metronomic passer, much in the mould of Xavi Hernandez, whom he replaced at Barcelona.
While Modric plays the eye-catching passes, Rakitic sits deeper and ensures Croatia hogs the ball against virtually any opposition they face. 28-year-old Rakitic made his international debut in 2007 and has been a permanent fixture in the Croatia midfield since then. Rakitic also provides crucial goals, having scored 11 in his 76 apps thus far.
Barcelona pulled off a transfer coup of sorts when they recruited Rakitic from Sevilla in the summer of 2014-15. He went on to win a treble that season which included the Champions League. Long recognised as one of the most accurate passers in the modern day, Croatia will rely on Rakitic to ensure their attacking unit is kept well fed on a diet of sublime passes.
#3 Mario Mandzukic
A potent goal-scoring threat, Mario Mandzukic is the man on whom Croatia rely upon to provide a killer finishing touch in front of goal. A footballing nomad, Mandzukic has won a truckload of honours with different teams at club level.
Having played for some of the best teams in the world at the moment, including the likes of Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, Mandzukic now plies his trade in Serie A with Juventus.
At 1.9 metres tall Mandzukic is a potent physical threat and a great header of the ball. With Modric and Rakitic supplying inviting deliveries into the box, Mandzukic can expect no dearth of service into the opposition’s final third.
Mandzukic made his debut for the national team in 2007 and in 66 appearances for the national side, he has managed 24 goals. He won the Croatian footballer of the year in 2012 and 2013 and Croatian sportsman of the year in 2013. Expect Croatia to rely heavily on their powerful striker in their quest for goals.
#4 Petr Cech
Another household name in world football, the Czech Republic custodian has been one of the best goalkeepers in the world in the past decade or so. The 34-year-old is a giant, standing at 1.96 metres.
His height added with superb technique and razor sharp reflexes made him an indispensable part of the Chelsea team that won every honour at club level at the start of this decade. Cech has been a permanent fixture in the Czech Republic goal, having nailed down the position since 2002.
Having represented his country 119 times since then, Cech will look to use all his experience to lead the Czech Republic to victory. His individual trophy cabinet is richly laden, with 4 EPL golden gloves, 8 times Czech player of the year and three UEFA club football’s best goalkeeper awards to his name.
Having won the competition at U21 level in 2002, Cech would want to taste success in the tournament at senior level too.
#5 Tomas Rosicky
Tomas Rosicky made a unique record against Spain during their opening encounter of Euro 2016. He became the oldest player to have played for the Czech Republic at the European Championships, having become the youngest to do so, 16 years ago.
Rosicky was the galvanising force in midfield for the Czech Republic in 2004 when they reached the semi-finals. Touted by many to be frontrunners for the tournament that year, they were eliminated in the semis by Greece, courtesy a silver goal in extra time.
That team boasting the likes of Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Marek Jankulovski was heavily reliant on Rosicky to provide dynamism and inspiration in midfield. 12 years on, injuries have taken their toll on the Czech stalwart.
While still a mesmerising sight at his imperious best, lengthy spells on the treatment table have left him a shade of what he was a decade ago.
Yet Rosicky, the flamboyant midfielder, has been replaced to a large extent by Rosicky the fighter. As he showed against Spain, he lasted a full 88 minutes against the defending champions whose midfield is the stuff of envy of other teams.
He scrapped and fought for all 50-50 balls and provided sparks of brilliance in between. At 35 Rosicky is no longer capable of pulling the strings for the Czech Republic. However, as the senior statesman in the outfield, added responsibility lies on his shoulders, to rally and motivate the younger players around him.