The dark horse no more, Croatia hits centre stage

This wonderful FIFA World Cup has thrown up all kinds of unexpected dynamics and truisms. One of them is that Croatia were arguably the best team of the group stages.


Luka Modric (L), Ante Rebic (C) and Mario Mandzukic Source: AAP

Nearly always described as a “dark horse” for every tournament they play, the Vatreni are not in the shadows any longer. They are a genuine title contender here in Russia, having conquered a group of Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.

Now they have landed a round of 16 match against Denmark, a match they should win if the group stage is any indication. From there, anything is possible. In the soft side of the draw, matching the deeds of 1998 – when they made the semi-final – is entirely possible.

Can they go further? Why not. There’s no good reason why they shouldn’t given the unusual realities of this tournament, with several big teams either absent, knocked out or misfiring. Opportunity is knocking for so many countries, none more so than for those in checkered shirts.

This team has suffered repeat disappointments, most notably at the last European Championships, when they could have made a run at the title. But they are a different beast this time around. The hot-blooded Balkan stereotype is just that here. This is a wiser, more determined team.

Right now, nobody is playing better than Croatia, who continue to defy logic for a nation of their size. If Uruguay are always feted for being so competitive with 3.4 million, Croatia are doing just as well from their 4.1 million residents.

And while Uruguay might have Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Croatia has two of the world’s most gifted playmakers, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

Working out how to get the maximum from both of them – without breaking team harmony – has been the biggest test of the largely unheralded Zlatko Dalic, a managerial name more familiar to fans in the Middle East than Europe. But he looks to have cracked the code after some initial teething problems.

Both Modric and Rakitic are stars for Real Madrid and Barcelona, where they are given protection by superb defensive midfielders, Casemiro and Sergio Busquets respectively.

Yet both were played as pivots in the opening game against Nigeria, with Andrej Kramaric as a number 10. It didn’t quite work. They ended up sitting too deep early on.

Dalic re-organised his midfield so that Marcelo Brozovic would screen them. Although that’s not the Inter Milan man’s natural role – he’s more box-to-box – he adapted to his new job. And Modric and Rakitic appreciated the freedom they’re used to at club level, giving them more of a licence to forage forward in Kramaric’s absence.

That was immediately obvious in the 3-0 win over Argentina. The South Americans were horrid; a once-in-a-generation debacle, but Croatia had to be good enough to reach for the jugular. They did so magnificently, sending a message to the whole football world. There was nothing lucky about it.

In Mario Mandzukic, they have one of this tournament’s most effective forwards. Not because he’s a goal-a-game striker, but because he ticks almost every other box the modern game requires. He’s certainly capable around goal but he is among the hardest working and most selfless strikers in Russia. His presence alone frees up other opportunities.

Dejan Lovren aside, it is a largely unheralded defence but they’ve only conceded once in three games. Critically, Danijel Subasic, at 33, has entered his prime years as a goalkeeper and it’s showing. The Monaco man has made good on his promise to fill the big boots of Stipe Pletikosa, the national guardian for 15 years.

But above and beyond anything else, this Croatian side is more mature and more well-rounded than anything from the Adriatic for some time. They are not only good footballers but smart and selfless ones. The team seems to accept if they can free up Modric and Rakitic, by keeping their defensive duties limited, they are capable of beating anyone.

Their fans – a huge number of which have come from Croatia’s excitable, patriotic Australian diaspora – have been keenly talking this team up for a while. With the way things have fallen in Russia, now they really might have something to cheer about.

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4 min read
Published 30 June 2018 at 8:17pm
By Sebastian Hassett