Like Group A rivals Cameroon, Croatia are a team most known for a World Cup run. Their 1998 run to the semi finals remains one of the most fondly remembered surprises in World Cup history and the current squad will be hoping to get close to that level this time out.
With a tough group including hosts Brazil, Mexico and the aforementioned Cameroon, let’s see how the Croatians measure up for their trip to Brazil.
Drawn in Group A, Croatia had a tough task as they had to get past a resurgent Belgium, the always dangerous Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. Despite a good start which saw only two points dropped in their first six games, many were unhappy with their poor play and lack of goals and the pressure began to grow on manager Igor Stimac. Despite only one point from their last four games (a draw with Serbia), Croatia got a play-off spot. However, two of their three defeats were to an already eliminated Scotland side and Stimac resigned following the second one. New boss Niko Kovac’s first two games in charge were the play-offs against surprise package Iceland and he managed to guide his side past Iceland 2-0 on aggregate to qualify for Brazil.
Kovac recently announced his thirty man squad and there are no real surprises as they look to do well in Brazil. The most notable absentee is veteran defender Josip Simunic who is serving a 10 game ban for a facist salute after the play-off win over Iceland in November. Kovac has named five uncapped players in his squad, all of whom make up the representation from the domestic clubs.
The full preliminary squad is:
Goalkeepers – Stipe Pletikosa (FC Rostov); Danijel Subasic (AS Monaco); Oliver Zelenika (NK Lokomotiva)
Defenders – Igor Bubnjic (Udinese); Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow); Dejan Lovren (Southampton); Gordon Schildenfeld (Panathinaikos); Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk); Ivan Strinic (Dnipro); Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev); Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa)
Midfielders – Milan Badelj (Hamburg); Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb); Ivo Ilicevic (Hamburg); Mateo Kovacic (Internazionale); Niko Kranjcar (QPR); Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka); Luka Modric (Real Madrid); Mario Pasalic (Hadjuk Split); Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg); Danijel Pranjic (Panathinaikos); Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla); Sammir (Getafe); Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev)
Forwards – Duje Cop (Dinamo Zagreb); Eduardo (Shakhtar Donetsk); Nikica Jelavic (Hull City); Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich); Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg); Ante Rebic (Fiorentina)
The Sevilla captain has been massively impressive in La Liga this season and eases the burden on Croatia’s star man Luka Modric in midfield. Rakitic can do a bit of everything – he scores, can create chances for the strikers, he can tackle, he can cover acres in a game, he can pretty much do it all. There have been few midfielders in the world that have had better seasons that Rakitic who is now attracting attention from the Premier League. If Rakitic can translate his club form into the World Cup then Croatia will have a very formidable midfield combination in him and Modric.
The captain and right back has been a constant in this team for years and has consistently delivered for both club and country on the big stage. The Shakhtar Donetsk man is an experienced campaigner and has played at the highest level for nearly a decade now. He leads the team from right back and is an offensive weapon with his deadly set plays. Srna will need to be on the top of his game for Croatia to succeed as he will attempt to nulify the dangerous left wingers in Group A (likely to include a certain Neymar).
Croatia’s top scorer in qualifying and spearhead, Mandzukic is coming off another successful season with Bayern Munich. His goals have propelled them to yet another Bundesliga crown and he also scored in their victorious Champions League final appearance in 2013. Mandzukic is also a proven goalscorer at international level and his Bayern move came off the back of impressing at Euro 2012. Many of Croatia’s hopes fall on the broad shoulders of Mandzukic this summer as their main goalscorer.
POSSIBLE STARTING XI
With depth of quality available to Niko Kovac, he has some tough choices to make. He may possibly go with a variation of this line-up here for a number of reasons. Mainly, the midfield three is not only there to create and Ognjen Vukojevic provides some added steel to the midfield and protection for the back four. Modric and Rakitic will be given the task of creating for Mandzukic up front as well as helping to defend when needed. Mateo Kovacic and Niko Kranjcar are options here too but have not played as well or enough to be considered starters. Ivo Ilicevic is the only natural wide right player in the squad while Ivica Olic on the left is in because of his exceptional work rate and quality even at 34. Srna is the right back while Ivan Strinic on the left is the regular left back with the in form Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka ensuring that Simunic won’t be missed at all. The veteran Stipe Pletikosa will hang on to his number 1 jersey in what looks to be his last major tournament ahead of Monaco’s Danijel Subasic.
Despite the change of manager and disappointments in qualifying, the Croatians are still a massive danger. They will undoubtedly give their group rivals a tough time but with Brazil there, I think that they are in a battle for second with Mexico. Personally, I think that they will just edge out the Mexicans on goal difference to go through to the knockout stages but they will fall at the round of 16 to the top side in Group B (likely to be Spain).