World Cup 2018: Croatia - from dark horses to title contenders
Croatia booked their World Cup final spot courtesy of an extra time winner from Mario Mandzukic. They will appear in the World Cup final for the first time, this certainly came as a surprise for the majority of football followers across the globe.
The Croatians have showcased resilience in the tournament, winning each of their knock-out games in extra time. This team caught everyone's eyes with their dominant 3-0 win against Argentina who were considered as favorites to win the tournament.
The Croatian team knows its weaknesses and its strengths, this allows them to play with determination, self-confidence, and resolve to grind out results.
Coming into the tournament, the Croatian team had to manage off-field issues, with their director general, Damir Vrabanovic convicted in a tax evasion case.
Nikola Kalinic was sent back home after he refused to come on as a substitute in their opening group game against Nigeria. This team put all the issues aside and has achieved the unthinkable, and are now only one win away from lifting the World Cup trophy.
The dynamic and industrious midfield is the major constituent of Croatia's eminence. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are omnipresent in Croatia's midfield. Luka Modric is the team's engine, having helped the team in attack with a 86.4 percent pass success rate, he has also contributed defensively with an average of 1.7 tackles per game as well as 1.3 interceptions per game.
Luka Modric has covered the most ground running in this tournament with 39 miles, which shows that he orchestrates the game for his team.
Ivan Rakitic partners Luka Modric in the midfield. He provides the dynamism to the team, playing in a number 10 play-making role. Rakitic has been supplying the front line of Ante Rebic, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Perisic, with an average of 1.3 key passes per game, and 6.2 long balls per game.
The attacking trio of Ante Rebic, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Perisic has been very efficient in their attacks, with every offensive move posing a threat for the opposing team. Mario Mandzukic provides a focal point to Croatian attacks, scoring 2 goals and assisting 1 goal so far.
Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic provide ample defensive support by tracking back when the team is out of possession. They use their height and physical strength to lethal effect in the opposition box.
The Croatian defense has been solid throughout the tournament, conceding more than 1 goal only once - against Russia.
They earned a hard fought clean sheet against Argentina, who had Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero in their starting XI. The back-line of Croatia often comprises of Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Vida and Ivan Strinic.
Dejan Lovren is often criticised for his erratic club level performances. On the contrary, Lovren alongside Vida has created a steady and secure defense.
Sime Vrsaljko has helped the team with his tireless displays on the right flank, running up and down, providing natural width and penetration with his overlapping runs, as well as occupying his defensive positions when the team falls back.
Zlatko Dalic, manager of Croatia national team also deserves recognition for his background job. He has created a positive environment around the team and convinced the squad members to follow his methods, as he believed that the Croatian players did not require intense training.
Dalic prefers a 4-3-3 formation with a defensive midfielder (preferably Marcelo Brozovic) shielding the back four and two box to box operators (preferably Rakitic and Modric). Croatia's 3-0 victory over Argentina was a tactical masterclass from Zlatko Dalic, with his team outplaying Jorge Sampaoli's team in every department.
Apart from his tactical nous, Dalic does not lack authority either, by playing Sime Vrsaljko in the semi-final clash against England despite pressure from Atletico Madrid to rest him for the game.
The decision to send Nikola Kalinic back after his unprofessional behavior was a bold step. This portrays that Dalic has authority over proceedings. Also the character, desire, and the collective motivation of this Croatian group have made them successful in this tournament.
Regardless of the final match's outcome, this Croatian team has defied the odds and already etched their name in the history books.