Croatia looking to make the leap from perennial dark horses to champion thoroughbreds

Assessing the Vatreni ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Despite only being a recognised nation since 1993, Croatia have been to five of the last six FIFA World Cups. The famous team of the mid to late 1990s were previously unknown to many but their now distinctive red and white checked shirts, mixed with a little eastern European enigma, put Croatia firmly among the world’s best and shot them to fame as they achieved third place in France 98. That squad with players such as Golden Boot winner, Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, Igor Štimac and Zvonimir Boban, were the toast of France with their stylish attacking play.

They have struggled to reach those heights since, but they’re constantly predicted to be in with an outside chance of at least the Semi Finals at every tournament they enter. With many of their players turning out for Europe’s top teams such as Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Perišić and Luka Modrić, they will surely be rubbing shoulders with the elite in the latter stages in Russia.

As far as qualification was concerned they were drawn alongside UEFA Euro 2016 Quarter Finalists, Iceland, as well as Finland, Ukraine, Turkey and qualification debutantes, Kosovo. The questionable ability of their opponents will have filled Croatia with a ton of confidence, however with just one automatic place for the group winners, they would have to be consistent for the whole campaign.

The road to Russia began at the Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, in September 2016, however the hostile crowd wasn’t present after UEFA had ruled the team must play two games without fans present after they were found guilty of discriminatory chanting during two games against Israel and Hungary in March 2016.

Their first game against Turkey ended in a 1-1 draw. It was a decent start against a team who like their hosts had suffered a few down years after their 2002 World Cup Semi Final appearance. However, the match was dominated by Croatia and Rakitic’s penalty on the stroke of half time should’ve been the catalyst for them to win, but Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s equaliser just a minute later meant the points were shared.

All of the first round of games were 1-1 draws with Kosovo securing their first ever point in their very first competitive game, away to Finland. Kosovo’s draw was all the more remarkable as they had only been accepted as members of UEFA a few months prior to qualification commencing.

They were the next opponents for Croatia as they travelled to Albania for the game on 6 October, Croatia were a much more severe test than Finland as a hatrick from Juventus hitman, Mandžukić, helped the Croatians to an easy 6-0 win. England’s Euro 2016 subjugators, Iceland, jointly held the group lead with Croatia after two games after they defeated Finland, 3-2. Two Icelandic goals in injury time helped them snatch the win from the jaws of defeat.

Croatia took charge of the group three days later against luckless Finland. Mandzukic was the Croatian match winner once again as they won by a single goal. For Finland, their qualification campaign was all but over already and they failed to register a shot on target to further compound their grief. Iceland, however, continued to match the Croatians point for point in an early skirmish for group superiority as they eased past Turkey, 2-0 in Reykjavik.

The next international break saw the two group leaders clash in Zagreb, the second of Croatia’s games behind closed doors, the home team secured a vital 2-0 victory courtesy of a brace by Inter Milan midfielder, Marcelo Brozović. The hosts had Ivan Perišić sent off in injury time but it mattered little as they were now two points clear of nearest rivals Ukraine; they continued their decent start by seeing off Finland (poor, Finland!), 1-0 in Odessa.

A Nikola Kalinić goal was enough to secure a win over qualification rivals, Ukraine, at home in March 2017, while Iceland kept the pace with a 2-1 away in against Kosovo.

The top two met in Reykjavik for their return fixture on 11 June; a win would put Croatia within touching distance of the Finals, however an injury time winner from Hördur Magnússon gave the hosts a priceless win and put them joint top on 13 points. Turkey and Ukraine also recorded wins, versus Kosovo and Finland, to move them to within two points of the leaders.

The tense final rounds in September saw both joint group leaders lose, first Iceland suffered a shock 1-0 loss in Finland, this while Croatia were easing to a 1-0 home victory over Kosovo. Three days later it was the turn of Croatia to lose, this time a trip to Turkey saw them lose only their second game of the campaign and the group leaders were tied again.

Croatia were set up nicely to visit Ukraine in their last game and secure qualification, however the penultimate game away to Finland saw the host’s Pyry Soiri score a last minute equaliser to cancel out Mandžukić’s fifth goal of qualifying in Rijeka. This gave Iceland the chance to overtake them and they did just that with a tremendous 3-0 win in Turkey. They now lead by two points with just one game remaining. Croatia had seemingly been cruising through qualification but now relied on Kosovo taking a point or more from their group rivals in the last round of games on 9 October. Croatia played their part as they won 2-0 in Kiev, however, as expected Iceland held their nerve and comfortably won, also 2-0.

That meant Croatia were sent into the lottery of the Play Offs, they were comfortably one of the best eight runners up after amassing 20 points. Due to their impressive qualifying record they were seeded and could’ve face either Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sweden or Greece; none of them particularly easy.

They were drawn against Greece, with the first leg to be played in Zagreb. The game started in a whirlwind of action as five goals were scored before the hour, four to Croatia. Modrić, Kalinić, Perišić and Andrej Kramarić fired them into a very strong position going into the return leg three days later. The tie was all but over before a ball was kicked in Piraeus and the teams played out a 0-0 draw.

Despite their brief lapse in concentration in qualifying Croatia have made another Finals and will fancy their chances against Argentina, Nigeria and, in a delightful twist of irony; qualification rivals, Iceland. However, they will need to be more robust in attack after scoring just 15 goals in ten games (England and France scored 18, Spain, 36 and Germany, 43). Conceding a mere four goals in qualifying shows they’re durable at the back, and with the return of veteran, Vedran Ćorluka, they could be a match for Lionel Messi and company in the Group Stage.

Much is expected of qualification top scorer, Mandžukić, Barcelona star, Rakitić and Real Madrid veteran, Modrić, especially as they could all be playing in their last Finals. The Croatia squad has a profusion of talent but simply playing in the Group Stage isn’t enough and they will be disappointed if they don’t better their previous two World Cup performances.

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