Can current Croatia crop come good at another France finals?
Simon Sinclair | February 24, 2016
Croatia can be surprise Euro 2016 package
Eighteen years ago Croatia provided one of the storylines of the 1998 World Cup with their third-place finish in France.
Miroslav Blazevic’s side qualified for the tournament narrowly ahead of Greece, but managed to land a favourable draw to feature in a group with Jamaica, Japan and Argentina.
The goals of Davor Suker propelled the Blazers into the knockout phase where they edged past Romania and into the last eight. Though, the daunting prospect of Germany awaited in the quarter-finals, with many people expecting Croatia’s World Cup journey to end.
However, Blazevic’s men produced arguably the display of the competition by defeating Die Mannschaft 3-0 to set up a showdown against the host nation in the semis.
France proved to be too much of an obstacle for the Blazers as a brace from Lillian Thuram put them into the final, despite Suker’s 46th-minute strike handing the Croats a Stade de France lead.
Croatia finished in third by defeating the Netherlands, while Suker capped a phenomenal tournament by winning the Silver Ball and Golden Shoe after notching six goals.
The Blazers have failed to reach the last four of a major competition since their impressive run all those years ago, but could another return to France for Euro 2016 inspire them to greatness once again?
Late regrets in qualifying campaign
Croatia had a strong start to their qualifying campaign for the Euros, winning four of their opening six fixtures, while they drew the other two matches in hard-fought contests against Italy.
However, in September last year Croatia travelled to Azerbaijan with the intention of putting pressure on the Azzurri at the top of Group H, but they could only draw 0-0 with the minnows.
A defeat to Norway followed three days later, but the Blazers finished the campaign with two victories to secure their place at the Euros, although boss Ante Cacic and his men will have wondered what could have been after finishing four points behind Italy.
Their second-place finish left Croatia at the mercy of the gods in the draw for the group stage of the tournament and, although they were placed with defending champions Spain, their hopes of advancing were improved when the Czech Republic and Turkey were also put in Group D.
Cacic’s side have the advantage of playing the two lesser sides in their group first, so theoretically they could have a place in the second round secured before they have to play Spain in their final match in Bordeaux.
Croatia boast an impressive record against both the Czech Republic and Turkey, having never lost to either nation in a total of eight matches. As a result, the Blazers will feel confident of progressing into the latter stages of the competition and have solid odds of 7/2 from Coral to win Group D, despite their late showdown against Spain.
However, four years ago in Gdansk a late goal from Jesus Navas cost them a place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 in a narrow defeat, an ominous warning to Cacic and his team.
Abundance of quality midfielders
Croatia will boast one of the most talented midfields in the tournament, and will even have several quality options remaining on the bench.
Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic are all guaranteed places in the 23-man squad, while Milan Badelj and promising youngster Alen Halilovic will also be vying for a spot on the plane to France.
Modric is the heartbeat of the team and will attempt to enhance his lofty reputation further by orchestrating his side’s run into the latter stages of the competition.
The 30-year-old does not quite have the legs to dictate the tempo as he once did, but as seen with Italy’s Andrea Pirlo in previous tournaments, it’s not all about physical ability.
Rakitic is in the prime form of his career and is having a fine season with Barcelona, which has seen him become their most influential midfielder, filling the void of the departed Xavi.
He has the ability to raid forward from the middle of the park to support the frontman, and will be crucial along with Modric to Croatia’s ambitions of pressing further into the tournament.
The 27-year-old has only notched 10 goals in 75 caps, but he may have to contribute strikes to ease the burden on the strikers, should Cacic opt for a five-man midfield.
Kovacic is developing into one of the most promising midfielders in the world. The 21-year-old continued his rise up the ladder by completing a £23m move to Real Madrid last summer, where he may be seen as the long-term replacement for his compatriot Modric.
The midfielder played at the World Cup at the age of 20, but failed to make a major impact at the tournament as Croatia were dumped out at the group stage. He will be determined to make his mark this time around and announce himself to the rest of Europe in the international stage.
Something similar could also be said of Brozovic, who played a sparing role at the World Cup. The midfielder has shined for Inter Milan this season and also has the quality to help dominate the middle of the park in France.
Finding the net
Perisic notched six goals during qualifying, including a brace in his side’s 6-0 win over Azerbaijan at Stadio Graski, playing as a forward alongside Mario Mandzukic.
However, since his move to Inter Milan from Wolfsburg he has been played out of the wing where he has still been able to produce quality for Roberto Mancini’s men.
There will be concerns for Cacic whether Perisic will be able to regain his form as a striker in front of goal after notching only three goals for Inter in Serie A this term.
Mandzukic holds the key for Croatia at the tournament due to his prowess in front of goal. The 29-year-old has undoubted displayed across Europe with Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus this season.
The forward has an impressive record at the international level, scoring 20 goals in his 63 caps, although he found the net only once during their qualifying campaign.
One worry for Cacic will be Mandzukic’s lack of gametime with Juve this term as he has been battling Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata for a place in the starting line-up.
However, he has managed to net nine goals in 22 matches, including an important equaliser against his former club Bayern in the first knockout round of the Champions League in Turin.
Mandzukic’s ability in the air and clinical edge inside the box makes him and interesting prospect to back to win the Golden Boot at 25/1, especially considering the talent behind in midfield which will undoubtedly create a lot of opportunities.
Elsewhere, former Blackburn Rovers striker Nikola Kalinic will be vying for action after impressing for Fiorentina with 11 goals in Serie A this term, while the experience of Ivica Olic may also come in use for the Blazers despite his advancing years.
Overall chances at success
Looking at Croatia’s squad you will see enough talent in the midfield and forward areas to give them a chance to compete for the tournament, although their fatal flaw could well be at the back where they lack a true quality defender.
As a result, their hopes of reaching the last four of the competition as they did in France 98 look bleak, which is why a shout of 10/3 to be eliminated in the quarter-finals could be a good option.
However, as they proved 18 years ago a surprise could well be on the cards should their top players come to the fore.