Croatia head into the FIFA World Cup 2014 with an exceptionally talented group of players as part oftheir roster, most of whom are at the peak of their powers.With Belgium consistently being proclaimed as contenders for the crown rather than just outsiders, football experts have started pinning the dark-horse tag on Croatia. Some of the best players from the top leagues of Europe will be wearing the famous red and white checkered shirt of Croatia.We look at five players whose performances will be key to Croatia's progress.
#1 Luka Modric
The mightiest of players often come in the smallest of packages and Luka Modric epitomises this proverb.
He is the man who makes his national side tick. One of the most creative playmakers of his generation, Modric has grown leaps and bounds over the course of the last few seasons and has successfully made the transition from a precociously talented wonderkid to an accomplished central midfielder.
Pulling the strings for Real Madrid in their successful La Decima campaign this season, Modric is a player who now looks on top of his game and ready to take on the team’s mantle in Brazil.
The 28-year old has already amassed 74 international appearances, scoring 8 goals for his nation. Modric’s gifted vision and innovation in the centre of midfield will be Croatia’s most prized asset at this year’s World Cup finals.
#2 Darijo Srna
The Croatian captain is a legendary figure in his country as well as in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where he has spent a majority of his career.
A supremely gifted right-back, Srna could’ve voluntarily chosen any big club in Europe to play for, but his loyalty to Shakhtar has meant that he remains one of the most underrated and undervalued footballers in Europe for the last decade or so.
Srna possesses an indefatigable spirit and a tireless work ethic which makes him a truly inspirational leader. His crossing ability coupled with the lethal heading ability of Mandzukic is one of the most intriguing aspects of Croatia’s style of football under Niko Kovac.
Croatia’s most-capped player of all time, Srna has represented his nation at the 2006 WC, the Euros in ’04, ’08 and ’12, and will be striving to make Brazil 2014 his crowning glory.
#3 Mario Mandzukic
Recently christened as the ‘best header of a football’ by club manager Pep Guardiola, Mario Mandzukic has experienced an interesting rise in fame and fortune since he first announced himself on the world stage at Euro 2012, where he finished as the joint top-scorer.
His move to Bayern Munich post Euro 2012 has been more than just satisfactory. Helping his team to a historic treble in the first season, Mandzukic has proven himself to be a consistent goal-scorer, pitching in with another wholesome tally (26 goals in 48 matches) this season.
For Croatia, Mandzukic has scored 13 times in 47 appearances and has struck up a fruitful understanding with fellow forwards Olic and Jelavic.
He, however, will have to watch from the sidelines as his team take on hosts Brazil in the competition’s opening game on June 12. He is suspended for the clash as a result of his sending off against Ireland in the second leg of the qualifying play-offs.
#4 Dejan Lovren
Croatia’s fortunes in Brazil hinge on the output of the weakest area of their squad, the defence. The Balkans region has traditionally been a breeding ground for burly central defenders, but the current generation of Croatian football is not as blessed as some of Croatia’s neighbouring countries.
Southampton centre-back Dejan Lovren will be critical to Niko Kovac’s plans and tactics in Brazil. The 6’2” defender had a stellar debut season in the Premier League, forming a peerless partnership with Jose Fonte and guiding his club to an incredible top-half finish.
Lovren’s indispensability in the team is amplified by the uninspiring figures of the other two natural centre-backs in the Croatian squad, Vedran Corluka and Gordon Schildenfeld.
Corluka’s pace has been severely hampered by recurrent injuries while Schildenfeld will find it difficult to make the rapid step-up from Greek football to the intense pressure of the World Cup finals.
#5 Ivan Rakitic
The 2013/14 season has been Rakitic’s season of reckoning. A player who promised so much since his early days with Basel and Schalke, Rakitic has finally fulfilled his prodigious potential with Sevilla this season, playing a pivotal role in their remarkable Europe League triumph.
A player who possesses a lovely right foot, keeps the ball as if he owns it, sprays it around ever so nonchalantly, Rakitic has led by example for Sevilla after being named club captain at the start of the season.
A return of 15 goals and 13 assists makes for a mind-boggling statistic for a player who isn’t even deployed as a natural attacking midfielder. Rakitic is equally mindful of his defensive duties and if Kovac sticks to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, he will have an enormous responsibility alongside Luka Modric to orchestrate the midfield, create scoring opportunities and perform their defensive duties with equal élan.
Reported offers from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid have started surfacing and Rakitic could well turn out to be the standout player in a star-studded Croatian line-up.