Croatia look ahead to Argentina but will be without Nikola Kalinić…

Croatia will only have 22 players to select from for the rest of their FIFA World Cup 2018 campaign after forward, Nikola Kalinić, was sent home on Monday. Rumours of a problem in the squad circulated just hours after their opening group game victory over Nigeria and Kalinić’s departure was confirmed shortly afterwards. The reasons surround an apparent refusal by the player to come on as a substitute on Saturday night. Kalinić claimed he had a back injury, but Croatia manager, Zlatko Dalić, raised concerns that this had happened not only during training shortly after their arrival in Russia, but also during the penultimate friendly game against Brazil at Anfield.

Whether Kalinić was sent home because of his injury or because of his lack of team ethic isn’t clear. The France team of 2010 know too well how infighting can ruin a World Cup campaign and credit is due to Dalić for nipping the toxic morale-kryptonite in the bud and ridding the squad of a petulant and apparently work shy player. Kalinić’s apparent de-motivation is astounding given the fact he might not play in a World Cup again and the chance to represent his country at the highest level is one that only a handful of players experience in their lifetime. Kalinić is hardly a huge loss for Croatia as they are more than capable of replacing him. Mario Mandžukić will likely continue as the lone striker, while Andrej Kramarić, Ivan Perišić, Marko Pjaca and Mateo Kovačić will provide the support.

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Going into Thursday’s game against Agrentina, Croatia hold the advantage at the top of the group after Argentina failed to beat Iceland in their first game, in fact a Croatian win would see them qualify for the Round of 16, but that will depend on the result of the group’s other game, Iceland versus Nigeria.

Croatia will be rightly confident after Saturday’s victory and Dalić likely stick with the team and formation (minus Kalinić) which brought the three points against Nigeria, however they were fairly lacklustre despite the win and rarely moved out of second gear, whether that was because of the limited opposition or because of some first-game nerves, is debatable. Croatia will need to do better in the middle, and more commanding performances from their big two, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, are necessary as Argentina will more than likely play the majority of their game through the centre, with Javier Mascherano playing an influential role. However, having seen Argentina struggle against Iceland, Dalić will be aware the Argentinian defence is a little suspect and will look to exploit with some quality service to Mandžukić.

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Argentina will provide a much harder test than an overrated Nigeria, and will be itching to get their first win to relieve some of the pressure on themselves after they dominated the game against Iceland but couldn’t find a winning goal.

Lionel Messi in particular will be hoping for a better performance to make up for his penalty miss. The problem Argentina face is a little over reliance on Messi; sure he is a phenomenal player, but he cannot do it on his own.Their limited attacking flair was exposed on Saturday afternoon as time and again they looked to Messi to deliver. Argentina did create a few clear goal scoring chances against Iceland, but like England, they need to be a lot more clinical if they are to progress even beyond this stage.

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Argentina will also need to spread the play out wide more often than we saw against Iceland, if only to give their forwards, Messi included, more room to operate and to try to pull the Croatia defence out of position. My tactical article gives a little more insight to how Croatia play, but they tend to struggle against crosses and should Gonzalo Higuaín get the start, or at least see more than the five minutes he got against Iceland, we would definitely see a change in focus from Argentina.

Croatia can afford to draw this game so expect a cautious approach, much like their first match win over Nigeria. Argentina simply have to win to avoid having to go into their last game needing all three points.

Match prediction: Argentina, 1 Croatia, 1

 

Warming up for Russia: Croatia’s pre-FIFA World Cup 2018 friendlies..

How did Croatia fare in the lead up to the World Cup?

Croatia have gone against the usual warm up process for the FIFA World Cup, namely, playing a bunch of fourth-rate patsies, who are usually used as cannon-fodder to boost morale and bag a few goals. They lined up against fellow qualifiers, Peru, Mexico and Brazil, while Senegal provided the final opponents before the tournament begins. It’s obvious to see they’re preparing for their group games with Argentina and Nigeria. The fact they played Iceland, their other group opponents, in qualifying, means they’ll be well prepared for their group encounter in Russia.

They kicked off their preparations in March with two friendlies in the United States, against Peru and Mexico. Their third friendly was a lot closer to home, at Anfield, as they faced off against pre-tournament favourites, Brazil. Their final friendly, against Senegal, will be a send-off in front of their fans in Osijek. No doubt playing the three games at a neutral venue will help to replicate the atmosphere of a World Cup game and will certainly help their preparations.

 

Peru / Miami, FL, USA / 24 March 2018

Their first friendly was at the Hard Rock Stadium, Miami. They faced a Peru side who finished fifth in the CONMEBOL group but, like Croatia, qualified through the Play Offs. Croatia fielded a familiar line up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with their big hitters, Mario Mandžukić, Nikola Kalinić, Ivan Perišić, Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić all starting. For this game we saw Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić swap roles, with Rakitić playing as defensive midfielder and Modrić the link between the midfield and attack. We have seen these two interchange during qualifying as they possess a similar skill set. Verteran, Verdran Ćorluka, made a welcome return to the centre of defence.

The match was dominated by Croatia, they had almost twice as many shots and 61% possession, however, they went behind early to a goal from Watford player, André Carrillo; a defensive mix-up, a failed clearance and a pass intercepted by Peru on the edge of the Croatia area, all contributed to the circus act which was the opening goal. The shot, a powerful low drive, was deflected past Danijel Subašić. Worse was to follow for the Vatreni as Edison Flores scored a relatively simple tap in just after half time. The initial through ball had beaten the Croatian defence, and Christian Cueva, slightly to the left of goal, fired in a low shot under pressure, Subašić parried and Flores was left with an open goal. 2-0.

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There wasn’t the rash of substitutions we usually see in friendlies as Croatia only made four, the most notable of which saw Marko Pjaca play a 20-minute cameo to continue his quest to regain his form after a post-Christmas loan from Juventus to Schalke 04. He was singled out for glory at international level before a horrific ACL injury in March 2017, but if he regains his fitness and form he could still prove to be a valuable asset for Croatia in Russia and the years to come.

Peru had Yoshimar Yotun sent off for two cautions with just 12 minutes left, the official reason will be unsportsmanlike conduct as he prevented Modrić taking a quick free kick in midfield. It’s a shame a player should be sent off for a trivial caution in a friendly but the referee appeared to be committed to applying the rules no matter the occasion or the situation. The game ended in defeat for Croatia but they can be heartened at the performance and they move a step closer to full match sharpness ahead of Russia.

 

Mexico / Dallas, TX, USA / 28 March 2018

Next up four days later, a journey across the country, all of 1348 miles, to AT&T Stadium in Dallas, to face Mexico; a much more rigorous test for Croatia against the number 15 ranked nation. Zlatko Dalić fielded a much changed side as only Rakitić remained from the team who started the Peru game. Pjaca started, as did Mateo Kovačić and TSV Hoffenheim man, Andrej Kramarić .

The game was fairly even and entertaining in regards to chances, although clear cut chances were at a premium. As mentioned in my tactical article, Croatia’s defence again struggled a little on crosses and on more than one occasion they were left to hurriedly clear the knockdown or half chance; something to work on before the tournament.

Given the lack of real goal scoring opportunities it isn’t a surprise it finished 1-0. The single goal was an Ivan Rakitić penalty just after the hour. Having watched the incident leading to the penalty a few times it is still debatable whether Tin Jedvaj, the player fouled, was actually on the pitch! He cut inside his marker close to the touchline and penalty area and was hacked at, it was a foul, no question, but he appeared to leave the pitch during the act of turning the Mexican player. Regardless, the win will have given Croatia something to smile about on their journey home.

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Brazil / Liverpool, England / 3 June 2018

Croatia’s penultimate friendly saw them line up against Brazil in a real test of their credentials ahead of the tournament in Russia. A familiar Croatian line up took to the field at Anfield, with the exception of Mandžukić, who dropped to the bench, Andrej Kramarić took his place. Regular starters, Strinić and Kalinić also started on the bench. It was apparent from the formation that Rakitić and Modrić had swapped roles in order to give Modrić more freedom in attack.

Brazil too fielded a strong line up with Fernandinho, Marcelo, Gabriel Jesus and Phillipe Coutinho starting the game. The game itself was, pardon the atrocious pun, a game of two halves. Croatia started very physically and gave Brazil little time on the ball; watch for this tactic when they face Argentina in a few weeks time. They created few chances though, but troubled Brazil with the corners they forced. Again it was encouraging to see Croatia using the flanks as a point of attack and they created a little panic in the Brazilian defence more than once. The first half was probably most notable for an obvious, but not malicious, studs up tackle by Kramarić, which was received with a comedy late hop-and-dive about 5 seconds after contact from Thiago Silva.

The second half saw the introduction of Neymar and an improved Brazil performance. They played Croatia at their own game and pressured them into a number of misplaced passes. Neymar scored the opener with 20 minutes remaining, a rasping shot into the roof of Subašić’s goal following a dribble past two Croatian defenders. While the dribble and finish were impressive, it can be argued the Croatian defence showed too much respect to Neymar and they had ample opportunities to make a challenge. They cannot afford Lionel Messi or Paulo Dybala the same respect in Russia.

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The flurry of second half substitutions, as usual, affected the flow of the game and Croatia offered little else in the early-summer sunshine. Brazil’s second goal in injury time was courtesy of a high ball over the top of the defence which wasn’t at all well dealt with by the defence and local favourite, Roberto Firmino, lofted a nice finish over the stranded goalkeeper. The curse of the high ball strikes again as more than one Croatian defender was stood watching the ball over the top.

In the end the scoreline wasn’t as important as the performance and Croatia can be encouraged by their first half pressing and physicality; it may be just enough to unsettle Argentina in the Group Stage game on 21 June.

 

 

 

 

 

Senegal / Osijek, Croatia / 8 June 2018

Croatia rounded off their pre-World Cup friendlies by hosting Senegal in Osijek, the hosts would no doubt be hoping playing at the home of former national hero, Davor Šuker, would inject some of his goal scoring prowess in to them in the coming weeks.

The Croatian line-up was again a fairly strong one, Mandžukić was back in the starting XI, Modrić and Rakitić reprised their roles from the Brazil encounter, but Vida started in an unfamiliar right back role.

In a fairly even first half neither team looked particularly threatening, although it was notable Croatia were was looking to attack from the wings with plenty of crosses now Mandžukić was back as the lone striker.

Once again though, Croatia’s defence looked suspect on high balls and crosses as the central defensive awareness was severely lacking at times. This was highlighted in the worst possible way just minutes into the second half as a high ball split the two defenders and Vida was caught ball watching as Ismaila Sarr latched on to the ball and easily stroked the ball past Subašić.

Croatia hit back just after the hour as Perišić’s deflected free kick found its way in, it was a deserved equaliser as they had relentlessly attacked since going a goal down, showing some great mental qualities in the process. Andrej Kramarić, a half time substitution for Milan Badelj, hit the bar just before the equaliser but eventually hit Croatia’s second with just over ten minutes left; a powerful low finish at the second attempt after he cut inside the Senegal full back. Kramarić is certainly one to watch in Russia and has impressed in the Croatian team during their recent friendlies.

It stayed 2-1, and the smiles and relaxed atmosphere at the final whistle showed a team ready for the challenges ahead in Russia. Croatia dominated the possession and their reaction to the Senegal opener was reflected in this. Their build up play and organisation, when compared with the earlier friendlies, was vastly improved.

Croatia’s defence remains the biggest problem but winning breeds confidence and if they can get off to a good start against Nigeria on Saturday they may just be able to make some noise in Russia this year.

Il Guerriero – The Mario Mandžukić Story

From Zagreb to Turin…

As Tale of Two Halves’ resident Juventus writer and one half of footballfootball.football’s Croatia writing team, I couldn’t go a whole FIFA World Cup without writing about the career of a player known in Turin as ‘Il Guerriero’. The Warrior. Mr Mario Mandžukić.

Kicking off his career in lower league Germany and Croatia he transferred to Dinamo Zagreb for £1.5m in 2007. He had already been noted for his height and fitness and strength, but he also had a difficult time with referees after picking up a flurry of cautions during his formative years. This didn’t prevent Mandžukić finishing as Dinamo’s top goal scorer in successive seasons; in 2007/08 he scored 12 and the following season, 16. The 21 year-old’s reputation was growing swiftly and piqued the interest of Chelsea among others.

In what proved to be Mandžukić’s final season in Zagreb in 2009/10 he had another fine season in front of goal; netting 14, but in an often controversial season he was sent off once, and on another occasion, fined for an apparent lack of effort during a UEFA Europa League defeat to Anderlecht. Mandžukic was made an example of after the team’s poor display in a ground-breaking move by the club. This was a shocking act of foolishness by Dinamo, often his size and languid style can be confused with a lack of effort, but one thing Mandžukić should never be accused of is not giving 100%.

Mandžukić should’ve been playing in that summer’s World Cup in South Africa, but surprisingly Croatia did not qualify after finishing third in a group which England won. Ukraine pipped Croatia to second by just one point. Mandžukić’s first goal for his country came at the moribund end of a 4-1 defeat at home to England, a game in which Theo Walcott scored a hatrick.

Predictably, as with most top Croatian talents, his services were wanted elsewhere and after scoring 63 goals in 128 games for Dinamo he transferred to German side, VfL Wolfsburg during the summer of 2010.

Life at Wolfsburg didn’t start well as Mandžukić faced stiff competition from Edin Džeko for the lone striker role. As a result, Mandžukić was mainly used a substitute by ex-England Manager, Steve McClaren. However, in 2011 events off the pitch turned the tables in Mandžukić’s favour. Džeko’s departure to Manchester City and McClaren’s sacking with the side hovering above the relegation places meant Mandžukić was afforded more playing time. Making the most of the opportunity, Mandžukić scored eight goals in the club’s last seven games of the season and the club survived as he scored two goals in a last day win, 3-1 away to 1899 Hoffenheim.

Mandžukić made his tournament debut for Croatia at UEFA Euro 2012. In a group with Italy, Spain and Republic of Ireland they finished a disappointing, but not unexpected, third place. Despite Croatia’s elimination Mandžukić had a first-rate tournament as he scored two in the 3-1 win over Ireland; both headers and both involving an element of bad luck or bad goalkeeping on the part of Irish goalkeeper, Shay Given. He was also on the score sheet in their second game versus Italy, again his goal came from a cross, only it wasn’t a header this time, as he neatly controlled the ball as it dropped over the defender’s head and fired in the finish off the near post. The control and finish wasn’t as surprising as one may think; Mandžukić has over time become noted for his fine close control, something not usually associated with someone of his style and physical stature.

With a fine tournament debut behind him it was plain to see Mandžukić was destined for bigger things and his transfer to Bayern Munich was announced in July 2012. Bayern were simply unstoppable during Mandžukić’s two season in Bavaria, collecting seven trophies.

Mandžukić’s debut saw him score after just five minutes of the DFL Super Cup game versus rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Bayern went on to win 2-1. He very quickly established himself in the Bayern starting line-up by scoring seven in his first eight games. He also had a big impact in Bayern’s Champions League run that season; he scored away to Arsenal in the Knockout Round and away to future team, Juventus, in the Quarter Final. The all-German Final at Wembley saw Mandžukić open the scoring with a poacher’s tap-in on the hour mark and Bayern crowned a hugely successful treble-winning season with a 2-1 win over Dortmund. Mandžukić finished the season as Bayern’s top league goal scorer with 15, an enormous achievement considering just how commanding they had been over the course of the season.

The following season they were defeated by Real Madrid in the Champions League Semi Final, but they cantered to a domestic double; drawing three and losing two league games and finishing 19 points ahead of second place, Dortmund. Mandžukić had initially struggled with new boss, Pep Guardiola’s, new formation but he regained his scoring instinct and ended the season as Bayern’s top goal scorer with a very impressive tally of 26. These initial teething problems along with a reported disagreement with Guardiola, lead to Mandžukić being dropped from the starting XI for Bayern’s extra time DFB-Pokal Cup Final win over Dortmund. Eventually Mandžukić submitted a transfer request in the summer of 2014 citing a continued problem with Guardiola’s tactics.

Mandžukić apparent problems at club level certainly didn’t affect his international form as he scored twice in a 4-0 win in Croatia’s 2014 World Cup game against Cameroon. The team however didn’t make it past the Group Stage as they were defeated by hosts, Brazil, and Mexico, both by three goals to one. Mandžukić only featured in two of the three group games as he was suspended for the opener due to a red card he received in the final qualification game for a horrific tackle on Iceland’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson

He joined Atletico Madrid in July 2014 and played just one season in Spain, he helped Los Rojiblancos to third in the league. Mandžukić finished as the club’s second leading goal scorer with 20, just five behind French sensation Antoine Griezmann. Again, Mandžukić had his problems with the officials as he picked up 14 yellow cards, the second-most on the team. Leaving Bayern to join Atletico could’ve been considered a step down in quality for Mandzukic, but his playing style and Diego Simeone’s aggressive, energetic pressing tactics really suited each other and it is a shame for both parties he didn’t play more than one season in Madrid.

In the summer of 2015 Juventus were looking for a replacement for Real Madrid-bound, Alvaro Morata. After a protracted transfer negotiation, Mandžukić became a Juve player just weeks after Juve’s Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona (bizarrely, this was his third successive move to a club who had just lost the Champions League Final). After a very indifferent start the club lay in 12th place after ten games and Mandžukić had only scored once before the end of October nadir. Juve would go on to remain undefeated for all but one game for the rest of the season, picking up a domestic double. They were knocked out in the Knockout Round by Mandžukić’s ex-club, Bayern, in the Champions League.

That summer Mandžukić started all Croatia’s games at Euro 2016 as they topped their group, despite letting a two-goal lead slide against the Czech Republic. They qualified for the Knockout Round with a last-game victory over defending champions, Spain. Unfortunately, they were knocked out in extra time by eventual tournament winners, Portugal. Mandžukić and company failed to register a shot on target against the Portuguese as they limped out.

Mandžukić scored a comparatively low 13 goals in his first season at Juve, 11 in his second and just 10 last season. However, it over this period when he has started to show his true worth to the team. No longer an out and out striker he has become a more modern centre forward and his all round game improved season upon season. He successfully played as a left winger in a number of games in the 2016/17 season and was massively praised for his versatility.

He has become a true figurehead for both club and country; a role model of determination, energy and passion. Mandžukić has won the double in each of his three seasons in Turin and has also scored some memorable goals, the obvious being the better-than-Bale’s overhead kick to equalise in the 2017 Champions League Final, he also scored two in this season’s Quarter Final Second Leg fightback in Madrid; two predatory headers from right-wing crosses which have become a Mandžukić signature move over the years.

That tackle on Guðmundsson in 2014 qualifying, his vexation, the mountain of yellow cards, the borderline arrogance and aggressiveness are what make up Mandžukić. He isn’t the most technically gifted player you’ll find but he has that quality all fans love to see in their players, someone who will give everything, and more, for the cause. In Italy it is referred to as ‘grinta’, and it is that which Juve fans will remember him by if his rumoured transfer this summer comes to fruition.

Mandžukić was a key figure in Croatia’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign; he finished with five goals and was their top goal scorer as they made the tournament in Russia via the Play Offs. His attacking qualities are certainly not in doubt, especially his aerial abilities. The cross to their target man, Mandžukić, is something of a ‘go to’ play for Croatia and we can expect to see more of this at this year’s World Cup. Mandžukić is also a tireless runner who excels in a high-pressing tactic and has received appreciative comments from many of his coaches for his stamina and work rate, because of this we can also expect him to drop deeper and hold up the play for Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić to work their midfield magic.

This summer Mandžukić will represent his country at his second, and probably last, World Cup. For Croatia he is very much a talisman and one of their best players. He above most will need to be at his best if they are to fulfil their potential in Russia and put behind them the disappointments of 2014 and 2016.

 

A Tactical Manoeuvre…

Delving into Croatia’s tactics, strengths and weaknesses ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018

Tactics are a football nerd’s wet dream, now I’m not here to go all Football Manager fanboy on you, but similarly, I won’t be leaving you thinking I’m some kind of pre-historic Mike Bassett-type either; nevertheless, I have been watching Croatia closely recently (God bless YouTube) and here is what I found.

Overview

Croatia qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2018 via the Play Offs under the guidance of Zlatko Dalic and playing a very familiar 4-2-3-1. They secured 7 wins in 12 games using this formation and even when his predecessor, Ante Čačić, was in charge at the beginning of qualifying they rarely deviated from this. Clearly, Croatia use personnel to fit the tactic, rather than the other way round.

Their formation uses two central defenders and two wing backs who support the inside forwards when in attack. The holding midfield duo, usually Luka Modrić and Milan Badelj, stay in position when the team is attacking, although one of the two occasionally moves forward to support the attack. The formation can also become a 4-1-4-1 with Modrić playing the lone holding midfield role, on these occasions Badelj moves forward into the central midfield, this in turn allows Ivan Rakitić  more space in attack. The inside forwards, with Rakitić or Modrić as the central player of the three, support the lone striker and also look to move into the outer channels to provide crosses into the opponent’s area. Depending on the situation the tactic can be easily be changed to a 4-3-2-1 by substituting an attacking midfielder for a defensive midfielder.

Defence

Croatia’s defensive durability was demonstrated by conceding just 5 goals during their whole qualifying campaign. Their central defensive partnership of Domagoj Vida and Ivan Strinić, is an intelligent one and they are rarely pulled out of position. Although it cannot be denied Strinić and Vida provide a physical aerial presence they do concede goals in the air; three of their five goals conceded in qualification came from either a left wing cross or a high ball into the area. This is a concerning trait and also points to a weakness with their full backs. These problems persisted during their recent friendly games as the defence again struggled against these deliveries.

Their goalkeeper, Danijel Subašić, is a fine shot stopper, but his command of the area and his communication with his defence is questionable. This lead Croatia to concede a number of chances (not to mention a couple of goals) because of defensive lapses of concentration. These defensive problems will need to be rectified quickly.

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Midfield

This is where Croatia’s greatest strength lies. They have a plenitude of midfield talent in the shape of Rakitić, Badelj, Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić.

In most situations Croatia use Modrić as the defensive midfielder and Rakitić as the classic attacking midfielder, but either can revert these roles and this has been shown a number of times in qualifying. Croatia, while attacking, have also pushed Modrić forward from defensive midfield to support the attack, this can be especially effective when the opposition defence is pressed back on to their own 18-yard line. In this situation it isn’t uncommon to see Modrić’s very good long range shot which can be used to dazzling effect on occasions.

Rakitić is usually the conduit between midfield and attack; an immensely energetic and talented playmaker, he often holds his position when Ivan Perišić and Marko Pjaca or Nikola Kalinić are pressing from the left and right hand sides of attack. When Croatia switch to the 4-1-4-1, Rakitić and Modrić assume opposite points of a midfield diamond and this can be fruitful against a similarly strong attacking midfielder like Modrić’s Real Madrid teammate, Isco.

One notable line of attack is, unsurprising given their wealth of technical ability, the through ball and shot from the edge of the area, with six of the 18 qualifying goals coming this way. Another is their great proficiency in being able to work the ball in to the area with simple, short passes coupled with great awareness. This route was responsible for a significant number of goals from just inches out during qualifying. Again their technical ability in midfield is a huge part of their success and this works well with the predatory instincts of Mandžukić and company up front.

Simply put, you cannot give this midfield time to think and pick out a pass or shot on goal. This is one of the keys to their attacking prowess.

On the flip side, Croatia lacks a physical midfield presence. Even though Modrić is adept at holding the midfield he lacks the physicality to consistently control the middle and protect the defence. They have on occasions played Badelj in this position but if they were to move to a 4-3-2-1 it would give the defence, and Modrić, more support, while still maintaining their attacking midfield shape.

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Attack

Croatia’s attack has a physical bluster about it. Juventus forward, Mario Mandžukić and Inter striker, Ivan Perišić have primarily played as the lone striker but have also provided support from the left attacking midfield position. Both provide the opposition defence with different problems; Mandžukić provides the height and power, while Perišić is more of a technical forward with a great left foot. They can also be supported in a three-man attack by inside forwards such as Marko Pjaca and Nikola Kalinić when they need to score goals.

A impressive ten of their 18 goals in qualifying came from crosses or corners and it is obvious the sound service to the attack is vital in Russia. Despite this success, Croatia do not play with any real out and out wingers so the high percentage of goals from corners and crosses suggests a reliance on their full backs to get forward. They also rely on the left and right attacking midfielders moving outside to hold up play and provide crosses and this poses its own problems, as a lack of bodies in the middle will hurt their goal scoring chances. They may face a battle to provide consistent service if they are stifled and pinned back by the better teams in Russia.

Despite a wealth of attacking talent Croatia only scored 15 goals in ten games before the 4-1 aggregate victory over Greece in the Play Offs. Mandžukić scored five (although three of those were against Kosovo), Perišić scored one goal and Kalinić three goals. This against teams of the calibre of Finland and the aforementioned, Kosovo. This is slightly worrying and the strikers will need goal-scoring assistance from the midfield in Russia.

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Verdict

Croatia will almost certainly line up with the flexible 4-2-3-1 in Russia and the keys to their progress will be the stability of their defence, the creativity in midfield and providing the striker with the best quality service. If any of these were to stall, particularly the persistent problems the defence faces against crosses, then Croatia will be in for a short stay at this year’s tournament. If all click into gear they could be well on their way to emulating their 1998 counterparts.

 

Rebel With a Cause…

Zvonimir Boban kick starts Croatian independence

Athens, 18 May 1994, AC Milan, led by Fabio Capello, had just completed a 4-0 rout of favourites Barcelona in the Champions League Final. Zvonimir Boban was at the heart of the victory. A gifted, dogged, playmaker, he had completed a journey of absolution since an incident which became known as ‘the kick that started a war’ in 1990.

Zagreb Riot

A fervent supporter of Croatian independence, Boban had joined the pro-Croatian team, Dinamo Zagreb as a part of their youth academy in 1983 (YA LINK). He went on to be a prominent member of the Yugoslavian side which won the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 and captained the Dinamo side at just 19 years old. In 1990 however he would be part of an event which many believe was the catalyst for the Yugoslav war which followed.

The war itself began in June 1991, however ask any Dinamo Zagreb fan or supporter of Croatia and they’ll tell you it started during a riot at the Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade game in May 1990. A dangerous time politically; the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb had recently held its first multi-political party rallies for over 50 years and there had been a lot of pro-Croatian independence support in the following weeks.

The game itself saw two vitriolic rivals square off, not only rivals on the pitch but also politically. Red Star fans were (and still are) notoriously pro-Serbian and had Serbian crime boss and later paramilitary leader, Željko Ražnatović (better known as Arkan), in among their hardcore fans. He became part of the Serbian army during the war and would later be charged by the International Tribunal for War Crimes.

The resulting riot was no real surprise. Reports of violent clashes outside the stadium already had the police on high-alert before the game, however, the Pro-Serbian police, stood back and watched the Red Star fans tear up seats, sing pro-Serbian/anti-Croatian chants and throw missiles into the surrounding Dinamo fans. The enraged Dinamo ultras saw this as a clear message that the police were supporting the actions of the Red Star contingent and attempted to climb and pull down the perimeter fence which held them back. The fence eventually gave way and the ultras poured on to the pitch, many police officers were assaulted and both sets of fans clashed for over 70 minutes, fires were lit and the toxic smoke of fire and tear gas filled the air before police water cannons arrived at the stadium to disperse the warring fans.

During the riot many of the Dinamo players stayed on the pitch and Boban witnessed a defenceless Dinamo fan being beaten on the ground by a police officer, incensed at one of his people being brutally treated, ran over and, Eric Cantona-style, kicked the officer before being helped to escape by an assortment of Dinamo fans and players. It isn’t surprising the police didn’t try to arrest him given the level of violence already happening around them.

Boban immediately became a Croatian hero, however the Yugoslavian FA (heavily pro-Serbian) wanted him brought to trial to face prosecution, but instead they banned him for six months. This resulted in him missing the 1990 FIFA World Cup, at which a proficient side containing many of the victorious 1987 World Youth Championship team, reached the Quarter Finals.

It is believed the incidents of that day signalled an almost rebellious inspiration among the Croatian people and they saw the riot and the assault by Boban as a movement against the Pro-Serbian Yugoslavian government.

Many Dinamo fans enlisted in the Croatian army in 1991, while their Red Star rivals joined the Serbian army, as Dubrovnik among other cities became the focus of the world at the start of the Yugoslav war. Many years later, 2006 to be precise, I was in Zagreb for the Croatia versus England game (the one where the ball skipped over Paul Robinson’s foot). I was chatting with a group of drunken and loud, although perfectly decent and welcoming, Croatian fans in a bar. They recounted, via one of their group who spoke perfect English, their recollections of the war. Needless to say their accounts were mostly abhorrent and it was clear the mental wounds of the war were still very raw.

Success in Milan

Boban, made his move to Italy in 1991, with Milan paying £8m for him. Milan had already become a dominant force of world football in the late 1980s under Arrigo Sacchi, their back to back European Cup wins in 1988 and 1989 were the stuff of legends and lead by the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.

Current Milan manager, Fabio Capello, had noted Boban’s attacking midfield prowess and felt his creative, determined style would suit his already celebrated team. Boban began a period of acclimatisation on loan at Serie A relegation-fodder, Bari, and played 17 times during the 1991/92 season. Milan won the league that season and would retain it during Boban’s first season with the Rossoneri the following year, this despite Milan winning only one of the final 11 games.

Boban certainly had some illustrious company in the Milanese midfield, the aforementioned Gullit and Rijkaard were joined by Boban’s former Yugoslav team mate, Dejan Savićević , Roberto Donadoni and Demetrio Albertini. But Boban wasn’t at all out of place and made 22 starts during their victorious 1992/93 season.

Milan and Boban made it a hatrick of league titles under Capello as they secured the 1993/94 scudetto. Their European dominance, while not winning the Champions League every season, was stunning. Milan made the Final five times in a seven-year stretch and won three. Their famous pummelling of Johan Cruyff’s Barca was sandwiched in between 1-0 defeats to Marseille and Ajax, in 1993 and 1995. Boban started in the latter two finals and his performance in the defeat of Barca is one to behold; an intelligence and tenacity, he won the midfield battle against José Mari Bakero and Guillermo Amor of Barca.

Croatia’s Golden Generation

In 1996 Boban represented his newly-independent Croatia as they made the Quarter Finals at UEFA Euro 96, he played in all four games and scored Croatia’s second goal in a 3-0 trouncing of Denmark at Hillsborough. He also famously captained the Croatian team at the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France, his fiery nature and strong character made him the perfect choice to captain a nation only independent a few years previous. Boban played all but one game as they impressively reached the Semi Final by defeating Germany and Romania along the way (LINK). Croatia eventually finished third, after securing a 2-1 win against Holland in the Third Place Play Off. Boban assisted two of Davor Šuker’s six goals in the tournament; Croatia’s opener against France in the Semi Final and the winner versus Holland.

Boban’s Milan career peaked as the 1990s drew to a close and he became the very definition of a trequartista. His incredible vision and playmaking abilities were his most recognisable attributes, there were many occasions where he played defence splitting through ball or performed a back heel or dummy to open up the defence and shift the play in another direction. A very unselfish player, he was often the unsung hero of countless Milan wins.

Croatia failed to qualify for Euro 2000 and after 51 appearances he retired from international duty in 1999. Boban left Milan in 2001 and joined La Liga team, Celta Vigo, but after an unhappy few months in Spain he announced his retirement in 2002.

Life After Football

Since retirement he has never shied away from voicing his opinions on the fortunes of his former Milan side, but despite his continued involvement and opinions on the game he has publicly stated he will never become a coach.

Even during his younger days Boban was known as a literary man, and during retirement he gained a masters degree in History from the University of Zagreb in 2004. He also became a successful television pundit in Italy and back home in Croatia.

Always an outspoken and vociferous character, Boban was a good choice to join a newly reformed FIFA in 2016. As a result of the FIFA corruption scandal he was appointed their Deputy Secretary General in 2016, it was hoped Boban would bring some transparency and accountability to a badly rotten organisation. (Ironically, in a tremendously vague statement from his employers they stated his role was assisting with “developing the game and organising competitions”).

The fall out of his actions at the Dinamo and Red Star game may have been the spark which started the Yugoslav war but Boban has no regrets, he later said;

“Here I was, a public face, prepared to risk his life, career and everything fame could’ve brought, all because of one ideal, one cause, the Croatian cause”

Willing to give up everything for something you believe heavily in is an admirable trait and no matter your opinion on his actions you cannot deny Boban has unbelievable resolve and spirit, whether defending his people or playing the game we love.

 

 

 

 

 

Flair, Composure, Petulance, Cigarettes and Alcohol…

The life and times of Robert Prosinečki 

Robert Prosinečki a dynamic, intelligent and technically gifted midfielder. A footballing journeyman who made over 400 league appearances across five countries. He won a European Cup, World Youth Championship, played 49 times for Croatia, 15 times for Yugoslavia and played at two FIFA World Cups. Partial to a drink and a cigarette during his playing days, he played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and had a one season stint at Portsmouth later in his career.

Prosinečki is probably best remembered for his performances at the UEFA Euro 1996 and the World Cup 1998 in France, and in particular the goal versus Jamaica in their opening game. The goal is one of genius; an intelligent, audacious chip over the goalkeeper from an impossible angle. He helped lead his side to the Semi Finals on their World Cup debut and the team won many fans across the world. He also played and scored for Yugoslavia at Italia 90, thus making him the only player to have scored for two nations at a World Cup Finals.

German-born Prosinečki started his career at Dinamo Zagreb but only made a handful of appearances as a teenager. His father pressured for a professional contract with Dinamo but their well-respected and fearsome manager, Miroslav Blažević, famously shunned the request and was reported to have said he would “eat his coaching diploma” if Prosinečki ever became a real footballer.

Something had to give and eventually his father orchestrated a move away from Zagreb. He approached then European powerhouse, Red Star Belgrade, met with Director of Football, Dragan Džajić, and arranged a trial for 18-year-old, Prosinečki. They were extremely impressed with what they saw and started contract negotiations immediately. This obviously ruffled some feathers back home in Zagreb and the way in which Prosinečki left was a grudge Blažević would hold against him (he left Prosinečki on the bench for Croatia’s World Cup Semi Final against France in 1998). Blažević later blamed Prosinečki’s father for his unceremonious exit from Dinamo, stating he refused a four-year contract on Robert’s behalf and already had contact with Red Star before the negotiations with Dinamo began.

Nevertheless, Prosinečki immediately became a first team player at Red Star and won the Yugoslav First League in his debut season, no doubt to the annoyance of Miroslav Blažević. His skill, vision and shooting ability would help drive Red Star to the pinnacle of European football a few years later. Domestically, he won three league titles with Red Star and made over 100 appearances in four years.

Prosinečki was part of the victorious Yugoslavia side at the FIFA World Youth Championships 1987 in Chile. They won five of six games and defeated West Germany on penalties in the Final. Prosinečki’s composure and energy won him the tournament’s Golden Ball. It is little surprise Yugoslavia won the tournament as one only has to look at their squad to see why; Davor Šuker, Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban and Predrag Mijatović, were just a few of the players who would become household names across Europe over the next decade.

He was very much in the right place at the right time as the late 1980s and early 1990s were a golden period for Yugoslav football, much like Romanian football around the same time, they too produced an unlikely European Cup winner. Their European expedition began with a 5-2 aggregate win over Grasshoppers of Switzerland, Prosinečki scored two penalties in a 4-1 Second Leg victory.

Prosinečki was on the score sheet again as Red Star defeated Rangers 4-1 on aggregate in the Second Round. He scored his fourth of the competition in a 6-0 aggregate win over Dynamo Dresden in the Quarter Final. It’s worth noting Red Star were leading 3-0 from the First Leg and 2-1 in the Second Leg in Germany, when the game was abandoned due to rioting by Dresden fans; Red Star were awarded a 3-0 win.

The Semi Final was a tense affair with Red Star shading a 4-3 aggregate win over Bayern Munich, a last minute own goal from Bayern’s Klaus Augenthaler gave Red Star their place in the Final.

Red Star defeated Marseille in the Final in Bari, Italy. A penalty shootout was required to separate the teams as they played out 120 goalless minutes. Red Star inscribed their name into European folklore and with that win they remain the last eastern European side to win the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. The squad from the 1990/91 season was a who’s who of young Yugoslavian players who went on to become international stars; alongside Prosinečki were Vladimir Jugović  who played for Sampdoria, Inter Milan, Lazio and Atletico Madrid, Siniša Mihajlović (Inter, Lazio, Roma and Sampdoria), Darko Pančev (Inter, VfB Leipzig and Fortuna Dusseldorf) and also Dejan Savićević (Milan).

Predictably, Prosinečki’s own move abroad wasn’t too far away and he joined Real Madrid in 1991, a step up in quality and one which should have suited his playing style, however he didn’t settle as he would’ve hoped and endured an injury-plagued three seasons at the Bernabeu, making just 55 league appearances.

Prosinečki was loaned out to Real Oviedo in 1994 and he had arguably his best spell outside of his homeland. His improved fitness, dynamism and flair really came to the fore and in just 30 league appearances his performances caught the eye of both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Prosinečki became a free agent at the end of the season and chose to join Barca, signing a three-year contract in July 1995. However once again injuries damned his time at a new club and he was sold by Bobby Robson to Sevilla in 1996. He unfortunately endured a miserable time in southern Spain and the club were relegated from La Liga at the end of the 1996/97 season. It was time to head home.

Having made 124 starts in six years in Spain he returned to Dinamo Zagreb, now renamed Croatia Zagreb, in 1997. Prosinečki slotted right into the team and guided them to two league titles and thus two Champions League appearances. His influential role as captain in Zagreb’s midfield was the catalyst for their success and he helped to guide and advise some of Croatia’s future stars; just as he was involved in the last great golden generation ten years previously. The Croatia Zagreb team of that era sent six players to the 1998 World Cup in France, an impressive number considering the quality of their team at the tournament.

Prosinečki’s injury-hit career drew to a close with stints in Belgium, England and Slovenia, before returning home again in 2005. He is much relished from his time at Portsmouth as his performances helped save the club from relegation during his season there and this lead to him being elected into their all-time best XI in 2008.

Prosinečki’s lifestyle vices certainly didn’t affect his performances, although he later acknowledged their effects on his body during his retirement from playing. His energy, determination and work rate remained second to none throughout his career. It is a shame however that his career with European giants Real Madrid and Barcelona were so badly affected by injury, it is obvious a player of his immense talent deserved to be able show what he was capable of for many years at one of Europe’s colossal clubs. Revered for his performances on the international stage for Yugoslavia and later Croatia, Prosinečki remains one of the country’s most successful players. Croatia teams since his retirement have had an abundance of midfield talent and there has been more than a little ‘Prosinečki’ about them; masses of desire and technical ability all mixed together with a little egotism.

From the Rubble to the Ritz…

How independence catapulted Croatia to the top of world

The Croatian national team’s rise from the shadow of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and independence in 1991 to become one of the world’s top teams before the end of the decade is one of defiance, hope and solidarity. Lead by the lethal instinct of Davor Šuker, the rebellious swagger of Milan number ten, Zvonimir Boban, the industrious work ethic of midfield general, Robert Prosinečki and the defensive wall of Slaven Bilić and Igor Tudor they stunned the world in France 1998 and were minutes away from the Final.

They made their tournament debut in England in 1996 and straight away they gained the unshakeable dark horse tag. A team peppered with fine technical ability, they beat Denmark 3-0, with Šuker scoring a delightful chip over Peter Schmeichel for their third cherry-on-top-of-the-cake goal. They finished second in their group after they recorded another win over Turkey. Despite being knocked out by eventual winners Germany in the Quarter Final, it had been a very respectable start to their international adventures and they would have an opportunity to take revenge on Germany just two years later on the biggest stage of all.

Qualifying for the 1998 World Cup pitted them against rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina; two politically charged games saw Croatia triumph, 4-1 in Bologna and 3-2 at home.

Denmark gained some revenge for the Euro 96 defeat as the Laudrup brothers both scored in a 3-1 win in Copenhagen. With just two games remaining the win helped he Danes top the group, two points ahead of Croatia, they in turn finished a point ahead of Greece in third.

Croatia were left to slug it out in the Play Offs as one of the best runners up. The first leg of their tie against Ukraine saw them take an invaluable 2-0 lead, courtesy of Bilić and Valencia’s, Goran Vlaović. An early Andriy Shevchenko goal in the return leg made the remaining 80 minutes very anxious indeed, but they held their nerve in front of 77,000 to record a 1-1 draw and thus a 3-1 aggregate win. Croatia were going to their first World Cup; a huge achievement given the infancy of the country itself, but not entirely unexpected given the level of talent in the squad. The question was could they do themselves justice and show the world what they were capable of?

The draw saw them up against one of the tournament favourites; Argentina, and fellow tournament debutantes, Japan and Jamaica. Maybe the scheduling was a little kind to Croatia as they would play Argentina in the final game and the feeling was they would both have already qualified and thus the teams could play out a competitive, but predictable, draw. Croatia would be without powerful target man, Alen Bokšić, through injury, but they were fancied to at least progress to the Knockout Rounds.

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Their first game against Jamaica in Lens saw Boban become the first Croatian to captain his country at a World Cup and they were given a fine start as Mario Stanić fired them in to the lead just before the half hour. But the much loved Jamaicans equalised through Wimbledon player, Robbie Earle; a fine header from a left wing cross just minutes after the restart. Not to be denied, Croatia took control in the second half and cruised to a maiden victory with two goals in a 15 minute spell from Prosinečki and Šuker. Prosinečki’s goal was sheer class, bordering on arrogance, he shaped to cross a free kick on the right hand side of the area, he dummied instead; completely fooling the wall and chipped a beautiful shot over the stranded goalkeeper and into the far corner. A single goal from Gabriel Batistuta was enough for Argentina to see off Japan earlier that day in Toulouse.

The second round of games saw Argentina destroy Jamaica, 5-0, with Batistuta netting a stunning 10 minute, second half hatrick. Jamaica’s cause certainly wasn’t helped by the sending off of Darryl Powell in first half injury time. Argentina were through and Croatia joined them as a late Šuker goal was enough to give them a slender 1-0 win over Japan. So as predicted both Croatia and Argentina had qualified with a game to spare and their game in Bordeaux saw Argentina claim top spot in the group with a 1-0 win, their first place finish set up a Knockout Round game against England in Saint-Étienne (we all know what happened there), while Romania awaited Croatia on 30 June.

The winners of the Romania and Croatia tie would face Germany in the Quarter Final after they were victorious the previous day against Mexico. Croatia eased past a similarly talented Romania side, 1-0. Davor Šuker despatched a 45th minute penalty at the second attempt as the referee had ordered it to be retaken. Croatia were well worth their win as they dominated the game and the score line flattered Gheorghe Hagi’s Romainia somewhat.

The Croatian adventure continued with a Quarter Final game on 4 July against a Germany side who had not been at their best during the tournament. They had requiring a last minute winner against Mexico in the Knockout Round and had to overturn a two-goal deficit in their group game against Yugoslavia. However, their squad had plenty of match winners, they had won Euro 96 two years previously and not to mention the fact they were playing a team which hadn’t even existed the last time they won the World Cup.

Croatia took no notice of their respective records and during a very physical game Germany were made to look prehistoric by the fresh, exciting Croatians as they inflicted Germany’s heaviest tournament defeat for 40 years. The Germans’ nadir would soon arrive after their catastrophic Euro 2000 campaign and it would lead to their eventual revolution and redemption.

Croatia were clinical and confident though, attacking full back, Robert Jarni opened the scoring just after half time with an arrow of a shot into the bottom corner. The tide turned even further towards Croatia when Christian Wörns was harshly sent off just before half time. Vlaović doubled the lead on 80 minutes with a goal in technique and style which was similar to Jarni’s opener. The third came about from a wonderful display of determination, balance and skill from Šuker as he wrapped up the rout a few minutes from time. Revenge for the Euro 96 defeat was exacted in style.

Although most would consider the win an upset it actually wasn’t so far away from an expected win. Manager, Miroslav Blažević, a huge supporter of Croatia’s independence, had moulded an extremely well drilled team, with no shortage of flair and technical ability. Their eventual elimination was against the hosts in the Semi Final, four days later in Paris. It looked like the impossible may happen when Šuker gave them the lead just after half time as burst through the French defence to fire home past Fabien Barthez. However barely a minute later the hosts equalised through Lillian Thuram and he doubled his tally with 20 minutes remaining to put France through to the Final. Ironically, those two goals were Thuram’s only goals for the national team in 142 appearances.

Croatia dusted themselves down and faced off against Holland in the third place play off. Golden Boot winner and star striker, Šuker, scored the winner in a 2-1 victory as they finished the tournament in third place.

Croatia had been within a whisker of the world’s biggest cup final, a simply magnificent achievement for a country only recently recovering from a civil war. Long considered to be Yugoslavian, the players had their own identity, their own country to play for and this manifested itself into their exhilarating and joyful performances on the pitch. It’s been 20 years since their World Cup debut and they have yet to match that performance at France 98, with the likes of Modrić, Mandžukić, Perišić and Rakitić in the 2018 squad they have the quality to succeed again.