Croatia: Team Preview - 2014 FIFA World Cup
World’s grandest football extravaganza comes at a time when the entire Balkan region is enduring Europe’s worst floods in decades. Croatia, a scenic country on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, is no exception to the tragedy. The Croatian national team will be hoping to diminish the agony and despair of their countrymen back home and this added motivation will hold the twentieth ranked side in good stead in Brazil.
Ever since the secession from the erstwhile Yugoslavia, Croatia has steadily built a reputation for itself on the world football stage. Be it their stunning debut in the ’98 edition in France or their continued qualification to major international events, the team nicknamed ‘The Blazers’ have successfully carved out a space for itself in Europe and beyond.
Several top Croatian players continue to represent some of the biggest clubs in top leagues across Europe. The Niko Kovac-led side will be at the centre of the world’s attention as they face hosts and favourites Brazil in the tournament’s opening fixture. They will also have to contend with Mexico and Cameroon, the other two teams in Group A, but the Croats will back themselves to make it past the group stage.
Road to Brazil
Placed in Group A in the group stage of the qualifying round, Croatia had to face a relatively easier pool of teams with Belgium and Serbia being their most competitive opponents. Starting the qualification process in remarkable fashion, Croatia went unbeaten in their first six games before Scotland shocked them with a 1-0 win in Zagreb. Things started heading downhill from then on, as they slumped to two defeats in their final three games with Mandzukic’s goal in a 1-1 draw against Serbia eventually saving Croatia the blushes and guaranteeing them a play-off spot.
Croatia parted ways with coach Igor Stimac after the conclusion of the group stage and Niko Kovac, a highly celebrated former Croatian footballer, was appointed the new national head coach.
Luck was with the Croatians in the play-off draw as they were matched against an over-achieving Iceland team, also the lowest ranked side in that round. Iceland played the latter half of the first-leg with 10-men but was successful in eking out a goalless draw. Croatia showed their superiority in the return leg in Zagreb with a dominant 2-0 victory that sent them through to the World Cup Finals for the fourth time in their young history.
Niko Kovac has relied on Croatia’s most seasoned footballers and the final 23-man squad closely resembles the one that former coach Slaven Bilic had selected for Euro 2012. Veteran goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa will once again stand guard between the posts with Monaco shot-stopper Danijel Subasic providing able cover on the bench.
Dejan Lovren, who just finished a spectacular debut season with Southampton, will line-up alongside ex-Tottenham man Vedran Corluka or Panathinaikos centre-back Gordon Schildenfield. Croatia’s most-capped player and inspirational leader Darijo Srna will occupy his usual right-back position. Ivan Strinic, Croatia’s first-choice left back, will miss the tournament due to injury. Danijel Pranjic is likely to operate as a makeshift left-back in Strinic’s absence.
Champions League winner Luka Modric will marshal the midfield in the company of Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter’s highly rated youngster Mateo Kovacic. Ivan Perisic and Ivica Olic are expected to start in a wider role for Kovac’s team.
The Croatian squad looks highly potent in the final third with Mario Mandzukic leading the line alongside a rejuvenated Nikica Jelavic. The forgotten man of European football, Eduardo, will be hoping to put his career back on track if given the opportunity.
Kovac has named a very formidable squad despite the absence of Milan Badelj and Niko Krancjar, both of whom suffered recent injuries.
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Lokomotiv Moscow)
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Gordon Schildenfeld (Panathinaikos), Danijel Pranjic (Panathinaikos), Domagoj Vida (Dinamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa)
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg), Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan), Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka), Sammir (Getafe)
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Eduardo da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk), Nikica Jelavic (Hull), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina)
Many football experts across Europe questioned the national association’s decision to hand over the reins of the national team to a man who hadn’t handled a major coaching role before. But in Niko Kovac, Croatia have a former player and national sporting legend who not only shares the passion of its four million strong football loving population but also possesses the unnerving experience of playing on the biggest stage of world football.
A combative defensive midfielder in his time, Kovac led his side in the 2006 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2008 before hanging up his boots with 83 international caps and 14 goals to his name. Kovac will be the perfect role model and mentor for all the young guns making their first ever trip to the World Cup finals.
In what little the world has seen of Kovac in his new avatar, he has presented himself as an attack-minded tactician who trains his players to play attractive and entertaining football. With less focus on physique and more emphasis on technicality, Croatia will be a team to watch for football purists and fans of attacking football.
Formations and tactics
Kovac’s most favoured setup is the 4-2-3-1 formation with Srna, Lovren, Corluka/Schildenfeld and Pranjic forming the back-four. Modric and Rakitic will operate as holding midfielders in the centre of midfield with Ivan Perisic and Ivica Olic starting as wingers cum inside forwards.
This formation best exploits the potential of Modric and Rakitic, two driving forces of the team. Modric is deployed as the deep-lying playmaker, similar to his role at Real Madrid, but is given lesser freedom to roam owing to a lack of defensive cover for the backline. Rakitic, fresh from a stellar season with Europa League winners Sevilla, will operate as the more advanced of the two holding midfielders.
Olic and Perisic are the only wide midfield options available to Kovac and will, hence, ply down the flanks with Olic doubling up as an inside forward to provide support to the lone striker. Mateo Kovacic, dubbed as the next big thing in European football, will act as the link between the midfield and the final third.
A noticeable lack of physicality has traditionally been Croatia’s biggest weakness in major tournaments. Ever since Niko Kovac retired, Croatian coaches have failed to find a suitable replacement, which also became their biggest undoing in Euro 2012 and their below-par qualification campaign for South Africa.
But in Dynamo Kiev’s Ognjen Vukojevic, Kovac seems to have found the solution to this long-standing shortcoming. Vukojevic has all the skills a coach wants in a defensive midfielder- tackling ability, tireless work-ethic and the propensity to harass creative playmakers with shadow marking and raw physicality.
With Vukojevic deployed as an anchorman, Kovac’s second choice 4-1-4-1 formation will give greater creative freedom to Modric and Rakitic with the rest of the line-up functioning similarly to the 4-2-3-1 setup. The full-backs, Srna and Pranjic, will be afforded more opportunities to make overlapping runs and allow Olic and others to venture into the box.
Best Starting XI
Goalkeeper: Stipe Pletikosa
Defenders: Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren, Vedran Corluka, Danijel Pranjic
Midfielders: Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic, Ivica Olic
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic
History at the World Cup
1994 and earlier
Did not enter
Did not qualify
The Croatian national football team, formed in 1991, failed to get official FIFA recognition in time to enter the qualification process of the 1994 FIFA World Cup. It had to wait for seven years to make their debut in the WC finals. Their ‘golden generation’ of players- Davor Suker, Mario Stanic and Goran Vlaovic among others, stunned the world with a third-place finish in their first ever WC finals, a result which was beyond the imagination of football fans all over the world.
The 2002 World Cup proved to be a dampener and marked the end of the ‘golden generation’ era for Croatian football as they were upset by Mexico and Ecuador and even a victory against Italy couldn’t save them from a premature exit from the event. The 2006 edition hosted by Germany witnessed a new generation of players emerge onto the scene for Croatia, but the promise and hope proved to be short-lived as they made another early exit after failing to register wins over Australia and Japan.
Best Performance in a World Cup
Players representing Croatia in the late 90s were talented and accomplished, but no one had expected the Croatian national team to do any wonders in their first-ever FIFA WC finals appearance. In a double-header group stage format, Croatia showed glimpses of their capability but the real story was waiting to be scripted in the knockout rounds.
A 1-0 victory of Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania in the Round of 16, an incredible achievement in itself, proved to be a precursor to the show that was waiting to unravel itself. In the quarterfinals, stood Germany, the Germany of Lothar Matthaus, of Jurgen Klinsmann, of Olivier Bierhoff. But the Croatians were undeterred by the might of the Germans and their status as the second-best ranked side in the world. Davor Suker led the way in an extraordinary 3-0 romp that sent the global footballing community into a state of shock and disbelief.
Their astonishing march was halted by eventual champions France in the semi-finals, but not before Croatia took the lead, only to be bettered by a superb brace from Lillian Thuram. Croatia beat Netherlands in the third-place playoff to etch their name in football history books. The 1998 FIFA World Cup gave the world a glorious new footballing nation and a legend by the name of Davor Suker.
Predictions: How far can they go?
Croatia boasts of a fantastic group of players, some of whom have peaked at the perfect time. If Danijel Pranjic can successfully plug the left-back hole and Croatia can manage a draw against Brazil without the suspended Mandzukic, Croatia have an exceedingly good chance of getting past the group stage. A favourable result against other Group A teams, Mexico and Cameroon, is expected from this talented Croatian side.
Once into the knockouts, this Croatian team will be as good as any, more so under the inspirational leadership of Kovac and the presence of several seasoned stalwarts who have tremendous big-match experience under their belt.
If their star players can step up to the plate and if they don’t suffer any major injuries, Croatia will be a very tricky side to handle and it’ll be difficult for any side to stop their caravan. The odds might be stacked against them in the curtain-raiser against the hosts, but a victory against the pre-tournament favourites will bring back memories of France ‘98. In terms of sheer ability, this side heading to Brazil is no less than the one which created history sixteen years ago.
Official tweet with the 23 team members
To see other Team Previews : 2014 FIFA World Cup Team Previews