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.

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

Assessing the Vatreni ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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