Kovac to take attacking front on the shores of Brazil
They have the least experienced manager at the World Cup finals. Niko Kovac, once the on-the-pitch leader, is now charged with the task of commanding a Croatian unit that, in his three fixtures in charge, has transformed into a seemingly more attacking force.
He passed his first responsibility with relative ease. The team finished their qualifying campaign somewhat disappointingly, losing against group winners Belgium and then to Scotland. As old boss Igor Stimac was shown the door, in came Kovac.
Masterminding the Blazer’s two-leg play-off victory against Iceland, he has taken credit for rejuvenating the core of the team. His decision to pair La Liga duo Luka Modric with Ivan Rakitic in midfield has given a much appreciated creative edge, to the team.
Kovac’s next assignment is significantly harder. Croatia open the tournament against hosts and 3/1 favourites Brazil on June 12th, and Kovac will relish the opportunity. As a player, he was industrious and inspirational – the heartbeat of each team he played in and he will have his troops fired up.
In what will be a tough group with the hosts, Cameroon and Mexico, Croatia are 2/1 to reach the last 16 of the tournament, and should easily progress if Kovac can add another couple of wins to his tally.
Striker Mario Mandzukic, who was sent off in the play-offs, will be absent from the match and will be a big miss. Even Pep Guardiola struggles to replace the clinical forward at club level for Bayern Munich, so Kovac must review his options. In spite of Mandzukic missing the opener, he is 100/1 to be the tournament’s top scorer, and should they create enough chances in the final two group fixtures, he has proved he can do the business at the right end of the pitch.
Although the he only scored four goals in qualifying as well as notching against Iceland, Croatia’s goal record was disappointing under Stimac. They struck just 12 times in a group campaign that spanned ten matches.
The obvious choice is Hull City forward Nikica Jelavic who on his day is a handful. Since his move to the Tigers in January he has appeared revitalised, netting six times for a team that create minimal chances.
Arsenal fans will remember 31-year old Shakhtar Donetsk forward Eduardo da Silva. Although earning praise as one of the most natural finishers in the Premier League on his day, he never really hit the heights he was capable of, due to a devastating leg break, by Birmingham City’s Martin Taylor.
Ivica Olic is a striker England supporters will remember all too well. He broke English hearts in the qualifier for Euro 2008, and even though he is 34 he can still perform at the highest level. Recently linked to Stoke City, he decided to extend his contract with German club Wolfsburg.
In defence, Vatreni have accomplished experience. Southampton centre half Dejan Lovren has proved to be a rock for his club this term and featured seven times in qualifying. He has been touted as one of the few names that could replace Nemanja Vidic at Manchester United, and will be key to keeping Neymar et al quiet.
At 28, Vedran Corluka is coming to the peak of his career. He featured on nine occasions in qualifying, and with the absence of veteran defender Josip Simunic could be the one to step into his shoes.
Darijo Srna (also of Shakhtar) is a fans favourite both internationally and domestically. The versatile player who can operate anywhere down the right hand side of the pitch or in midfield, won even more respect recently when it was revealed that he turned down big offers from Chelsea and Bayern Munich.
“It is true, I had two concrete offers but I listened to my heart and remained at the club with whom I grew up for 11 years.” Srna told the media.
“If I moved, I would get more money, but as I said, it was a decision which was written in my heart.
“At the end I also did that because of my family which wanted to stay.”
Srna, who is renowned for his stamina will be vital in the heat and humidity of Brazil, and could be important outlet for Kovac’s team on the counter attack.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are flourishing this season for Real Madrid and Sevilla. The former is aiming to achieve treble success and has been a big part of domestic manager Carlo Ancelotti’s plans, while Rakitic has helped his club reach the Europa League final.
An interesting wildcard could be Inter Milan playmaker Mateo Kovacic, who Kovac has introduced to the national fold. At just 20, he has been tipped for big things and linked with Premier League trio Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United recently.
There is nothing like being thrown in at the deep end, though Niko Kovac isn’t just swimming with sharks. His initiation is with the barracudas Brazil.