Sackings, Corruption and Sulking Stars…

Croatia triumph over adversity

Croatia have made the Quarter Finals of the FIFA World Cup 2018; a not entirely unexpected feat given the plethora of talent in their squad and of course their relatively easy progress to the last eight – victories against a nervous Nigeria, a decaying Argentina and likeable, but limited, Iceland and Denmark, have seen them within touching distance of their best ever Finals.

However, it could’ve all been so very different for them given the disasters the squad and the Croatian Football Association has faced over the last nine months. In October 2017, just days before their crucial World Cup qualifying game, away to Ukraine, Croatia sacked their coach, Ante Čačić, after the team took just four points from their previous four qualifying games; defeats to Iceland and Turkey before a dreadful 1-1 draw, at home to Finland, sealed Čačić’s demise. The Croatian FA certainly took a huge gamble and appointed current coach, Zlatko Dalić, with immediate effect. Dalić’s future wasn’t assured, with an underwhelming and less than confident statement from Croatian FA president and former Croatian legend, Davor Šuker, in regards to Dalić taking the job permanently he sulked, “coaches live and die by their results, so we’ll see”.

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England know all too well about the upset in continuity and stability which can be caused by changing your coach with a qualification or a tournament on the horizon; Roy Hodsgon took England to Euro 2012 having had only two previous games with the national team, this after Fabio Capello resigned months earlier after he was gloriously undermined by the FA over the John Terry trial issue.

The gamble paid off for Croatia in Kyiv as two Andrej Kramarić goals confirmed their 2-0 win and their runners up place. They kicked off their Play Off game against Greece with renewed optimism and a sense of relief having overcome the Ukraine obstacle and they hammered Greece 4-1 on aggregate to book their place in Russia.

Having successfully qualified for Russia the squad could focus on preparation for what could be their current squad’s last attempt to emulate their 1998 counterparts, with Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić, Vedran Ćorluka, Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić all reaching the twilight of their careers, one would realistically expect them to have handed over the international reigns when the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar.

However, their preparations were thrown into crisis once more as two of their star players were caught up in a shady transfer scandal. Both Modrić and Dejan Lovren coud face prison sentences if found guilty in a trial involving former Dinamo Zagreb Chief Executive, Zdravko Mamić, and the personal profits he made when both Lovren and Modrić moved from Dinamo to Olympique Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur respectively.

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Mamić has a long history of dubious political, media and sporting connections and has never denied signing personal contracts with the players when they were in the Zagreb youth academy. By doing so it meant the players would share a proportion of their earnings with him. One can argue this is slightly naïve on the players’ part, however, the picture becomes clearer when we find out the players were being represented by Mamić’s son, and football agent, Mario. The focus for the prosecution was the clauses were put in place after their transfers and were backdated to their youth academy days. Mamić was found guilty and fled to neighbouring Bosnia, he is awaiting sentencing at present.

For Modrić and Lovren, they face a nervous few months. Modrić has already been charged with perjury after he changed his statement, he revealed the clause was written into his contract after his transfer, but then changed his version of events. Lovren has also reportedly changed his statement and is waiting to hear the outcome of the court ruling, although given Modrić’s charge for the same offence, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lovren charged too. Both could face between one and five years in prison.

Modrić has gone on to become one of Croatia’s key players at the World Cup, while his presence in the Croatian midfield was expected for a man of such talent, his performances are much more impressive given the mental strain he is under at present; a leader and captain on the pitch, who has had to battle more than most. However, his and Croatia’s next complication was just around the corner; just days before their massive World Cup Group D encounter with Argentina.

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The day after a Modrić-inspired Croatia secured their first win of the tournament against Nigeria, striker, Nikola Kalinić, was sent home. According to the Croatian FA he had refused to come on as a substitute during the second half of the Nigeria game. The player citied a back injury, while the coach, pointed to a lack of commitment on the part of Kalinić. Dalić stated the same problem had occurred during the team’s friendly against Brazil at the beginning of June and with good reason, wanted only players who were 100% committed to the Croatian cause to be part of the squad in Russia. Kalinić is certainly one of Croatia’s better players, and although inconsistency has hit his time in Italy’s Serie A, he could’ve been a big loss. Again it has been a huge gamble by Dalić and the Croatian FA, but one has to applaud their decision to not pander to the whims of their star players. Their subsequent qualification from the group with three wins from three games is a testament to squad morale, togetherness and determination.

They remain dark horses, as they usually are, but given the above average nature of the teams ahead of them, they have to be confident of at least a Semi Final place. Modrić may well end up in some very hot water over his perjury charge but he may well also be lifting the World Cup trophy in Moscow a week on Sunday. Given the turbulent 9 months they have had it would be just Croatia’s luck to have their captain jailed in the same year they reach the pinnacle of world football.

Croatia quietly confident after taking maximum points with minimum fuss…

While all eyes will have been on Argentina’s possible exit against Nigeria, Croatia took on Iceland in a game where Iceland could conceivably still qualify from the group with a win. Ultimately though it was Croatia’s squad players who eased themselves into the last 16 with a narrow 2-1 victory and thus sent Iceland heading for the departure lounge in Rostov-on-Don.

Croatia and Iceland are familiar foes having previously faced each other in qualifying for Russia. The teams split the games with Iceland claiming top spot with a slim two-point margin while Croatia finished second. They also squared off in qualifying for the 2006 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. This familiarity caused Icelandic coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, to quip the teams were “like a married couple”.

Croatia, having already secured qualification for the knockout phase rested nine players and although groups rivals, Nigeria and Argentina, can claim this gave Iceland an advantage it certainly didn’t play out that way as professional and committed performances from Mateo Kovačić, Milan Badelj and Andrej Kramarić saw them remain unbeaten throughout their group phase games.

The game itself was a lesson in squad management from Zlatko Dalić, and considering the problems Croatia have faced with the unceremonious departure of Nikola Kalinić  and the off the field legal issues involving Luka Modrić and Dejan Lovren, this is also a victory for squad morale. I don’t want to describe the players making their first start of the tournament as ‘back up players’, but their appearances will give the squad a more inclusive feel which will only help them if they progress past the next round.

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The majority of Croatia’s big-hitters were rested, however Modrić remained in the starting line-up, as they started in a defensive 4-3-2-1 with Kovačić and Modrić playing a more holding midfield role than they would usually incorporate. Real Madrid player, Kovačić, in particular turned in a magnificent performance, linking the midfield and attack and displaying the qualities which prompted high-praise from Inter legend, Javier Zanetti. On several occasions, in a game which Croatia were happy to play it safe and control possession, he held up play and completed an impressive 99% of his passes. In the end Croatia created few chances. Badelj hit the crossbar early in the second half before he drove home the opening goal in stylish fashion after 53 minutes. The injury time winner, came courtesy of a fine Ivan Perišić strike, across the Icelandic goalkeeper and into the far corner.

Iceland can rightly bemoan their lack of attacking quality; they certainly created a few chances but ultimately didn’t finish them. Alfred Finnbogason shot just past the post from the edge of the area after a defensive mix up and they caused mayhem in the Croatian defence with a long throw in the second half; the defence hardly knew where the ball was as stand in goalkeeper, Lovre Kalinić, fluffed his attempted punch and they were very fortunate to escape that time. Iceland were finally rewarded for their efforts when Gylfi Sigurdsson converted a 76th minute penalty.

Had the group winners, despite the changes to the starting line-up, not been their final opponents it may well have been a different outcome for the likeable Iceland team, but they can be pleased with their performances in Russia, with the draw against Argentina being their most memorable moment.

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Croatia’s defensive mix ups can be attributed to a lack of understanding between their squad players and a general easy-going approach to the game, but Dalić will want to make sure the old defensive problems don’t re-appear in the Round of 16 game. Nevertheless, Croatia will be very happy with their group stage efforts having won all three games, this including the 3-0 demolition of Argentina, and conceded just one goal from Iceland’s penalty on Tuesday evening.

 

Croatia will face Group C runners-up, Denmark, on Sunday in Nizhny Novgorod, and will be back at full strength and the momentum generated by their group performances will be vital, winning breeds confidence, and Croatia will definitely fancy their chances against an efficient, yet average, Denmark side.

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Again, Modrić is the key for Croatia, much like Christian Eriksen is for Denmark. They are very similar players and the worry for Croatia will be Eriksen’s ability to arrive late in the area or to use his devastating long-range shot. They are both integral to their country’s chances, but the support they get from their team mates is equally as vital and Croatia win this battle fairly comfortably with the likes of Rakitić, Perišić and Mario Mandžukić for company in the Croatia team.

Like Croatia, Denmark were impressive defensively, only conceding an Australian penalty in the group stage. However, they defend very deep when the opposition have the ball and this would give Modrić room to work his magic. For the Danes their lack of goals must be their real concern, having scored just twice in the three group games and given Croatia’s strong defensive displays thus far it is unlikely Denmark will have enough attacking firepower to beat them. It seems their main hope will be an inspired performance from Eriksen, a rare Croatian defensive slip up or taking the game to penalties.

Match prediction: Croatia, 2 Denmark, 0

Why signing Aleksandr Golovin makes sense for Juventus

Will the versatile Russian star make the switch to Turin?

Aleksandr Golovin teared on to the world stage with a masterful display in Russia’s crushing FIFA World Cup win over Saudi Arabia. The handful of assists and the delightful free kick showed his growing collection of admirers exactly what he’s about, but this wouldn’t have come as a surprise to many clubs who have been tracking him, including Dortmund, Arsenal and Juventus.

Juve have been monitoring Golovin for some time and reportedly have an agreement in place to sign the Russian after the World Cup. Recently, CEO, Giuseppe Marotta teasingly suggested signing Golovin is “more than just a possibility”, it’s fair to say when Marotta speaks in such certain terms things usually happen.

The signing of Golovin would be a dream scenario for both player, country and club. From a purely commercial point of view he will help expand the Juve (and by extension, Italian) brand in Russia, which on population alone is a huge financial triumph for Juve. High-profile Russian players don’t often play in Italy and to have one of the best talents of the current Russian generation would mean a massive commercial windfall for Juve and generate Russian interest in Golovin’s career in Turin.

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If he were to come to Juve, it is apparent one or two players would have to make way, as is Juve’s style with transfers. Marko Pjaca will apparently be used as bait to grease the wheels for a deal with Lazio for Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Given Pjaca’s lack of time at Juve, which is certainly no fault of his own given the dreadful injury he sustained on international duty in 2017, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him leave, whether he goes to Rome or elsewhere is debatable. Mario Mandzukic is also likely to be to be leaving after the World Cup and Max Allegri has said he would be moving into a central striking role even if he does stay. Those two, plus Stefano Sturaro, would probably be in line for the Juve exit door should Golovin’s move come to fruition.

The reported arrival of Anthony Martial from Manchester United would immediately plug the left sided role and this would negate the need for Golovin to play in there, however we saw Golovin take up a few positions against Saudi Arabia in a free attacking midfield role, the starting positions he takes for each of his roles in Russia’s goals shows this perfectly; his first assist came courtesy of a lovely floated left wing cross to the far post, the second Russian goal was all down to Golovin’s magnificent speed and awareness; starting in a right sided attacking midfield position he chased down a through ball and neatly squared for Roman Zobin to assist Denis Cheryshev’s sumptuous first goal. His second assist again came from a floated cross, this time on the right hand side, for brick-shithouse target man, Artem Dzyuba, to head home. His own contribution to the score line was a last-minute free kick; a perfect placed shot to the goalkeeper’s left. His long shots and dead ball abilities are another string to Golovin’s bow as Arsenal fans will know from the UEFA Europa League encounter earlier this year. All being said, this was almost perfect game from Golovin, limited opposition and yellow card notwithstanding, and it will have piqued the interest of many of Europe’s top clubs.

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On the pitch, Juve would gain a very versatile midfielder, blessed with great technical ability and determination. Juve have a need at both the attacking left and central midfield and Golovin can play both very well. Not only is Golovin an adept attacking player, he is also capable of playing a deeper role in central midfield, this is something we have seen during CSKA Moscow’s run to the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final last season. He is a robust tackler, has great balance and has enormous levels of stamina. Although small in stature, he is a physical midfielder and coupled with his passing abilities (80% pass accuracy during the last Russian Premier League season) he would fit into Juve’s midfield with great ease. In fact it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Golovin wouldn’t flourish, especially with the likes of Pjanic, Khedira and Matuidi around him, and he would certainly fill the need for someone to provide cover for Pjanic on a more permanent basis. One only has to look at the Champions League Quarter Final first leg against Real Madrid to see how badly Pjanic was missed, imagine the impact Golovin would have made in that game, especially in the period between Real Madrid’s first goal and half time where Juve were the better team.

Golovin would give Allegri so many tactical options; he could switch to a two-man attack of Mandzukic and Higuain (provided both stay in Turin), with Golovin playing in the Pjanic/Dybala role. He can play in an anchor or slightly less defensive midfield role to allow Pjanic and company further room to attack, with the possibility of switching to a 4-1-2-2-1 formation. Golovin can also play as part of the trusted 3-man central midfield, possibly on the left of the three, to allow him to attack from the left if Allegri persists in playing the lop-sided formation with Costa the only true wide player. Juve’s midfield may be somewhat lacking at the minute but Rodigo Bentancur’s progression, Emre Can’s probable arrival, and hopefully Golovin joining Can in giving the cheesy thumbs up photo during his medical, it certainly gives the Bianconeri plenty of hope for the future.

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Given the way in which Golovin ran the game for Russia last week he is now likely to command an even bigger transfer deal to bring him to Italy, even so, it should be well within Juve’s reach, and if they wanted to, without the need to sell anyone first. However, I would expect a midfielder, certainly Sturaro and possibly one other, or one of the strikers to make way to facilitate Golovin’s move.

All in all, Golovin is a player of immense versatility and his arrival would certainly fill a lot of gaps in the starting line-up, not only is he young and dynamic, he also has a creative spark about him which could light up the Juve midfield for years to come. Credit must go to Juve’s scouting team for highlighting Golovin before the majority of their European rivals, the task for Juve now is to get the deal over the line as soon as possible.

The conveyor belt of class…

A closer look at the famous Dinamo Zagreb youth academy

Luka Modrić, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki; all luminaries of the world game during their careers and they have one thing in common; they all progressed through the Dinamo Zagreb youth academy. The Građanski Nogometni Klub Dinamo Zagreb II was founded in 1967; the academy has won 26 Croatian under-18 titles, 11 Croatian under-17 championships and five Yugoslav under-18 championships. For the past 50 years Dinamo have produced some of the world’s most exceptional footballers and their ability to produce the next generation of Croatian national players shows no signs of subsiding.

Since the publicity around the celebrated early 1990s Manchester United youth players dubbed, ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ there has been a greater interest in finding the world’s next superstar at a young age. A decade later the graduates of Barcelona’s La Masia academy became the foundation of their legendary 2000s team and their success only intensified the need to produce successful homegrown players.

While it is a merely a wish for the majority of teams, one cannot deny there is something inherently romantic about someone who has been a one-club player since his youth. Someone who feels the pride when he pulls on the shirt, who has shared the highs and lows with the fans. It’s almost a parent/child relationship and that loyalty is priceless to most fans. It is also worth a great deal to the clubs themselves as bringing through youth players costs much less than buying someone from another club (although that may just be the cynic in me!? I’m sure they quite like the romantic ‘one of our own’ notion too!).

We all know most big clubs spend tremendous amounts on their youth academies and have scouts all over the world working tirelessly in an attempt to scoop up the most talented youth players. A big part of this desperation to find the next big thing is down to the greater exposure afforded to the modern game. Fans now don’t have to rely on newspaper reports of reserve team games to find out about their youth teams; they can easily use Google to find out everything they need to know in just a few clicks.

The term ‘wonderkid’ is widely used now also, it originates from Football Manager, and refers to a youth player, who with the right standard of training and first team action can become world-class. With games like Football Manager fans can be a real life Eric Harrison as they nurture the next Modrić or Boban from the youth team into the big time. Although it adds to the realism of the game it dangerously feeds the hunger for their club to find the next Messi.

The ease of access to modern footballers, coupled with the greater expectations from fans to ‘win now’, means clubs are always under pressure to produce quality youth players. Clubs like Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona are almost expected to spend millions on their academies and scouting, but just how does a team of the stature of Dinamo Zagreb produce such a conveyor of talent season after season?

Dinamo have long since been settled in their role among the European football’s pecking order; namely, a club with a wide-ranging scouting network and successful youth academy, who rear their youth players through the ranks, into the first team to then sell on at a large profit.

The Dinamo hierarchy deep down know the team will never compete at the top UEFA Champions League level, instead they purely set up to dominate domestically and gain entry into the Champions League, thus guaranteeing them a healthy revenue stream which by Croatian financial standards will keep their club and academy in business for many a year. This is partly the reason why their academy is able to flourish so well year after year despite being based in what some would consider a relatively small country, both in financial and population terms.

Presently Dinamo has ten age categories from under-8s to under-19s and they also hold summer training camps in Canada, United States, Australia, Slovenia, Germany and Poland.

A recent study showed they were ranked as the fourth best youth academy in the world, based on the quality of their youth teams and as of October 2015 Dinamo had the fourth most players playing in European leagues who had originally been part of their academy.

However, perhaps the most notable commitment of their academy coaches is they promise to play at least two of the academy graduates in the Dinamo first team, thus guaranteeing their best youth players first team action. The others who have a chance of making it as a senior professional, but aren’t quite ready for regular games at a high level, are sent on loan to Dinamo’s local feeder club, NK Lokomotiva Zagreb.

Some of the world’s star players have been a product of their academy, the aforementioned Modrić and Boban are the more obvious ones, but players like Andrej Kramarić, Niko Kranjčar and Champions League winner, Igor Bišćan are all Dinamo graduates.  Below we’ll take a look at some of their finest academy products in more detail.

 

Zvonimir Boban

Yugoslavia team mate of Robert Prosinečki when they won the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championships in Chile. He played for Dinamo for eight years in total and captained the club at just 19 years old. He made his name as an agile, attacking midfielder of great flair and determination. Boban was one of the main protagonists during a riot at a game between Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade in 1990, his resulting suspension forced him to miss the 1990 World Cup, however he was back to represent a newly-independent Croatia at UEFA Euro 1996 and the World Cup in France in 1998. Boban played 142 times for AC Milan, between 1991 and 2001, he won four Serie A titles and the Champions League in 1994.

Robert Prosinečki

As mentioned above, Prosinečki was part of the victorious Yugoslav squad in 1987. An intelligent and technically gifted midfielder he was a product of the Dinamo academy, he played for them between 1980 and 1987 then moved to Red Star Belgrade after a contract dispute with Dinamo. He won the European Cup with Red Star in 1991 and, like Boban, represented Croatia at the tournaments in England and France. Prosinečki went on to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona in an injury-hit career.

Vedran Ćorluka

Versatile defender, Ćorluka, played for Dinamo on 61 occasions between 2003 and 2007 after graduating from the academy and helped Dinamo to three successive league titles. He moved to Manchester City in 2007, then to Tottenham Hotspur a year later, where he played alongside fellow Dinamo youth product, Luka Modrić. He went on to make over 80 appearances for Spurs . Ćorluka will be representing Croatia at the 2018 World Cup; he has 98 caps and will hope to get past the century mark during the tournament.

Luka Modrić

Probably the most famous Dinamo youth graduate of recent times, Modrić joined the academy at 17 and played 94 times for Dinamo’s first team before joining Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. A wonderfully gifted passer of the ball with a creative intelligence which few can match, his talents paved the way for a £30m move to Real Madrid in 2012 and has been heavily involved in their three consecutive Champions League victories. Internationally, Modrić has played at five tournaments for Croatia, amassing over 100 caps in the years since his 2006 debut.

Dario Šimić

A tough and powerful defender, he represented his country exactly 100 times. Šimić joined Dinamo’s academy in 1987 and went on to play 140 times for the senior team. Inter Milan paid £11m for him in 1999, Šimić played for the Nerazzurri over 60 times before he crossed the divide to play for rivals AC Milan in 2002, he won two Champions League titles with Milan, in 2003 and 2006.

Dejan Lovren

Lovern played for Dinamo between 2004 and 2010, winning two league titles. He moved to Lyon, then Southampton and finally to Liverpool for £20m in 2014. He has a UEFA Europa League and Champions League runners up medal and has 38 senior caps for Croatia; representing them at the 2014 World Cup.

Alen Halilović

Diminutive winger, Halilović, was Dinamo’s youngest ever debutante, aged just 16 years and 112 days old when he made his first senior start in 2012. He played just 44 games for Dinamo before Barcelona signed him in 2014. Halilović has had a succession of loan moves since then and is currently at Spanish side, Las Palmas. He has enormous potential and could be one to watch for the future.

Eduardo

A product of Dinamo’s far-reaching scouting tentacles, he was spotted playing for Bangu in Brazil in 1999 and joined Dinamo a year later. He played for Dinamo for six years, winning three league titles and three cups. Arsenal paid £7.5m for him in 2007 and although he had a decent start with the Gunners his career in England never quite recovered from a horrific injury he sustained against Birmingham City in early 2008. He was part of the Shakhtar Donetsk team which won four Ukrainian league titles between 2010 and 2014. Eduardo scored an impressive 29 goals in 64 games for Croatia.

Marko Pjaca

A strong, skilful and fast winger, Pjaca was Dinamo’s most expensive sale when Juventus paid £23m for him in the summer of 2016. He was making tentative steps into Juve’s first team when he suffered an ACL injury while on international duty in March 2017. Pjaca has been regaining his fitness and match sharpness on loan at Schalke 04. He will be a part of Croatia’s 2018 World Cup squad and has 16 international caps thus far.

Milan Badelj

Badelj is the current captain of Fiorentina, but started out in Dinamo’s academy in 2005. He played 113 times for Dinamo and not only captained the senior side, but such was his ability he was also touted as a possible replacement for the departing Modrić in 2008. He joined Hamburg in 2012 and then moved to Italy in 2014.

Mateo Kovačić

Gifted midfielder, Kovačić, has been the subject of some lavish praise during his fledgling career; he was compared to Prosinecki by his coaches at Dinamo’s academy, later at Inter his potential was similar to a young Ronaldo by club legend, Javier Zanetti. He played for Dinamo between 2007 and 2013 before joining Inter. Kovačić moved to Real Madrid in 2015 for £29m and has won three Champions League titles since arriving.

 

The list of Dinamo’s youth alumni is endless, and there are plenty more players to be discussed in length. None of this would be possible without Dinamo’s complete and unwavering commitment to youth development, they deliver this very impressively, which considering the stature of the club, is staggering. Most of the current Croatia national squad are approaching the twilight of their careers (in fact they have the tournament’s oldest squad), and it will be exciting to see how Dinamo contribute to producing the next generation of national players.

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.

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.

 

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.