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

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.

 

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.

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.

The Heroes of Seville Now a Team With No Name

The rise and fall of Steaua Bucharest

Jerzey Dudek, Bruce Grobbelaar and Edwin van der Sar have all saved penalties in a European Final. However the efforts of another will surely top those of the aforementioned custodians; Helmut Duckadam. Not a household name west of Bucharest, but Duckadam, the Steaua Bucharest goalkeeper of the mid-1980s, was branded the Hero of Seville after his magnificent performance in the 1986 European Cup Final penalty shoot out where he saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties and by doing so he chiselled Steaua’s name in to European football history. European competition in late 1970s and early 1980s was largely dominated by English clubs, that was until the indefinite ban after the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster and the ban opened the door for the rest of Europe take their mantle. Since its beginning in 1955 only one other eastern European team has won the European Cup; Red Star Belgrade in 1991, and this makes Steaua’s 1986 victory all the more unique.

A side formed by the Romanian military in 1947, they recruited the country’s best young players with the promise of being able to avoid being called up for national service. Their rise to European success began under the guidance of coach, Emerich Jenei, in the second of six spells as manager, he helped Steaua secure their place atop of Romanian football’s elite with three successive title wins and two cup wins between 1984 and 1987, they narrowly missed three successive doubles by losing the 1986 Cup Final to city-rivals Dinamo. It mattered little, with their domestic dominance almost assured they started their assault on Europe.

Steaua’s victorious European Cup run in 1985/86 was at the start of an astonishing 104 match unbeaten domestic streak which stretched between 1984 and 1989. Captain, Stefan Iovan, a Steaua veteran of 11 years and Victor Piturca, who would go on to score 137 goals in just six years in Bucharest, lead their domestic rule and it no doubt gave them confidence to breeze past Vejle of Denmark and Honved of Hungary in the European Cup. They faced Finnish side, Kuusysi, in the Quarter Final and won 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a Piturca goal just three minutes from time. The Semi Final saw them fend off a talented Anderlecht side, 3-1, to secure their place against Terry Venables’ Barca in Seville. Steaua, despite being in the Final on merit, were given very little chance, especially as they were playing in their opponent’s home country. The game itself was a war of attrition and neither team can be particularly surprised it ended in a penalty shoot out. However Duckadam’s heroics are the stuff of legend and the whole club can be rightly proud of their victory.

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Their European adventures continued over the following three seasons. Under Jenei they won the European Super Cup in December 1986, defeating Dynamo Kyiv, 1-0, with Gheorghe Hagi scoring the only goal. By virtue of winning the European Cup they faced South American champions, River Plate, in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, however they lost 1-0 to a somewhat fortuitous goal where the ball rebounded off the post, goalkeeper, and straight into the path of Antonio Alzamendi who headed home.

Jenei was replaced by Anghel Iordenescu; a former Steaua player from 1968 to 1982 during which time he became their all time top goal scorer with 155. He joined the coaching team at Steaua in 1984 and was a 36 year old substitute in the 1986 European Cup Final. He became manager of Steaua on a full time basis in 1987 and he carried on where his predecessor left off with two league and cup doubles, including 21 consecutive league wins in 1988. His Steaua side also beat Rangers on the way to a Semi Final appearance in the 1987/88 European Cup. The following season they made their second Final in three years the season after knocking out Sparta Prague, Spartak Moscow, IFK Gothenburg and Galatasaray. In the Final they were comfortably beaten 4-0 by an AC Milan side lead by Arrigo Sacchi and inspired by Dutch trio, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi’s Milan side hammered Real Madrid, 6-1, in the Semi Final and would go on to achieve iconic status in Italy and Europe with back to back European triumphs. Their second Sacchi-led win was over Benfica in 1990.

Both of Steaua’s legendary 1980s managers went on to manage the national team. Jenei was in charge of Romania between 1986 and 1990, the World Cup in Italy saw Steaua players Balint and Lacatus both play and score as the team made the Second Round before being eliminated on penalties by Ireland in Genoa. Iordenescu followed Jenei into national management between 1993 and 1998 as he took Romainia to consecutive World Cups. The 1994 team, starring Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu, lost 4-1 to Switzerland but topped the group before being knocked out by Sweden on penalties in the Quarter Final. In 1998 they beat England on the way to leading the group, but despite avoiding England’s eventual conquerors, Argentina, they were knocked out by Davor Suker’s Croatia in the Second Round. Iordenescu received criticism for the team’s performances in France and he resigned after the defeat to Croatia.

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Gheorghe Hagi was undoubtedly the star of the era as he finished as the league’s top goal scorer on two occasions while playing for FC Sportul, he moved to Steaua in 1987 and went on to score 76 goals in 97 games. A player of immense flair and technical ability, he would go to be hugely successful across Europe over the course of his career. Steaua’s teams of the mid to late 1980s also saw Dan Petrescu, Marius Lacatus and Gabi Balint playing starring roles in their success. Those seminal Steaua teams were mostly compromised of home grown players, this was partly down to the restrictions put in place by the Communist government which contributed to the prevention of players moving abroad and thus influenced Romanian club’s successes in European competition, as a number of other teams were also commanding in Europe during this period. Dinamo Bucharest reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1984 before losing to eventual winners, Liverpool, they also reached the Semi Final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1990, while CSU Craiova made the UEFA Cup Semi Final in 1983. The fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989 somewhat liberated the transfer market and young players in search of a better standard of living, including higher wages, and a different more liberal culture were tempted away from Romania. Western Europe was suddenly accessible to Romania’s top players as Hagi moved to Real Madrid in 1990 and both Lacatus and Petrescu transferred to Fiorentina and Foggia, respectively.

After the 1988/89 domestic double, Steaua failed to win the league for three seasons and It can be argued they suffered something of a hangover after the drubbing by Milan in 1989 and losing their better players after the Romanian revolution the same year. Their domestic difficulties continued as there was a 1984/Doctor Strangelove-style undercurrent throughout the late 1980s. Military-owned, Steaua, were constantly in dispute with city rivals, Dinamo, who were owned by the Romanian Interior Ministry. It was reported the Ministry bugged the offices of Steaua and interfered with their transfer dealings.

Worse was to follow for Steaua, as although they had been separated from the military since 1998, in 2011 they were sued by their military founders for using of the Steaua name, stating the team had been using it illegally since 2004. The government ruled in the military’s favour in December 2014 and Steaua were banned from using their colours, name and logo; more importantly their history and previous honours would also remain under the military’s ownership. Fortunately for the integrity of the team now called FCSB and football in general, UEFA still recognises the trophies won by FCSB under the Steaua name to be theirs, so the history hasn’t merely been wiped out by the court rulings.

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The 1990s saw more allegations of corruption against a number of top flight teams including FC Brasov and Ceahlual Piatra Neamt; known as the Coopertiva, they allegedly exchanged wins to ensure the other teams involved weren’t relegated. These allegations, in a belated attempt at honesty and to try and rid the game of corruption, were admitted by several of the involved clubs of their own volition and not in a court of law.

While the Romanian national teams of the 1990s may have had more media attention it can be argued the Steaua side of the mid-1980s marked a real golden generation for Romanian football. Nowadays the Romanian league is one of the lowest ranked in Europe (20th in 2018, below Cyprus and Israel) and while FCSB will never scale the heights of their golden era they hold a unique place in the rich history of Europe’s premier club competition. The courts and the military may want to take that away from them but the heroes of Seville will always remain in the hearts of their fans and players.

Juve’s 2018 Crossroads – Part two

Looking ahead to an important summer in Turin

We’ve looked at the past and present, now to focus on the future, starting with the Mister himself. It’s widely assumed Allegri’s job is safe after all his trophy record speaks for itself, especially when you look at the calibre of players who have left the club over the last few years. It is widely considered that Juve’s Champions League success is almost more important than our Serie A record in order to increase our stature among our European rivals. Even a simple look at Juve’s Champions League record this season shows they have only marginally progressed; making the Quarter Final after beating Spurs, away, and then taking the holders to injury time in the second leg should be regarded as such. Looking at it more closely, apart from the 30-minute spell against Spurs and the nothing-to-lose game in the Bernabeau Juve haven’t demonstrated any ability to control games, to make teams fear them, and this could ultimately lead to Allegri’s downfall.

Allegri would argue that Juve, given those departures of key players, have been punching above their weight in Europe over the last couple of seasons and while that may be true it is clear the attention and momentum this generated hasn’t been used to their advantage. His persistence in using impractical tactics and personnel in Europe is hampering Juve’s progress. Given they have made the Final in two of the past three seasons it can be said this is progress enough and turning a squad capable of winning the trophy doesn’t happen overnight unless your team is bankrolled by the Middle East or Russia, but there haven’t been any significant signs of progress this year. In fact, the word regression springs to mind and the end of game antics in Madrid shouldn’t be allowed to cloud this view.

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Despite the tone of this article I am pro-Allegri but if Juve are to look elsewhere for a new manager, they have to weigh up whether Allegri can deliver them the Champions League trophy sooner rather than later. If they don’t think he’s up to it, they may only have to look as far as the opposing dugout at the Bernabeu. As a former player Zinedine Zidane could be a perfect fit for the BIanconceri, most importantly he has a proven record of delivering European trophies at a major club. During a recent post-game interview upon being asked whether he would be Juve manager one day he replied “never say never”, he also said “Juve is close to my heart”; certainly not a straight up refusal by any means. If he doesn’t retain the Champions League this year and given Real’s relatively poor domestic season he could well be looking elsewhere for employment. Italian coaches, Eusebio Di Francesco, Simone Inzaghi and Maurizio Sarri have all had impressive seasons, however the first two are still somewhat untested with a major club and Sarri is too inflexible to take a team to the highest level.

The summer will be very important as Allegri will surely be given opportunity to strengthen a team which desperately needs it. Juve have a ready-made replacement for Gigi Buffon in Wojciech Szczesny and now is the time for him to step up and be Buffon’s long term successor. As much as it pains Juventini to admit it, it is time for Buffon to keep his word and retire while he can still perform at the highest level, he may not have (potentially) ended his Champions League career the way he would’ve wanted to but his legacy as one of the best goalkeepers ever to play the game is one which remains untarnished. Juve have done well to bring Szczesny in for what should be his warm up season to help fully integrate himself and now is his time to take over the number one shirt.

The return from loan of Mattia Caldara will help bolster the defence after an impressive two season stint at Atalanta and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or both of Andrea Barzagli and Daniele Rugani make way. Rugani is still yet to consistently play under Allegri, other than a run of games at the start of the season, and while he has the ability to play at a high level, he doesn’t seem to have the trust of his manager after being overlooked for the Real Madrid home leg. Another loan spell for Rugani would be wise from Juve’s point of view, however the player himself may prefer to cut his losses and start elsewhere after being out of favour for so long. As far as Barzagli is concerned his form has still been above average but the first team starts are becoming less frequent, there aren’t many Juve fans who have a negative opinion of him, it is just a case of being the right time to pass the defensive responsibilities to someone else and given Caldara’s return this seems quite likely.  There aren’t many players Juve could conceivably bring in, especially with the return of Caldara, however Benedikt Howedes, has shown some promise in his (very) limited first team action and there was obviously something about his play to make Allegri and co want to bring him to Juve in the first place; he may well be tempted to make a second stab at his Juve career.

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As for the full backs it appears Stephan Lichtsteiner and (or) Kwadwo Asamoah will leave at the end of the season, Mattia De Sciglio seems to be settled in the right back role and it has been suggested another Atalanta loanee, Leonardo Spinazzola, will deputise where necessary next season. Like Barzagli, Lichtsteiner’s time is almost over in Turin and despite his long-term commitment to Juve a move would probably benefit both parties. In preparation for the departures at full back Juve have been heavily linked with Matteo Darmian, his signing would be welcomed as he has appeared to become a more stable and well-rounded defender since moving to England; definitely an upgrade on who is available at the moment. Alex Sandro, improved from his uncharacteristic form at the beginning of the season, could again be a prime target for the Premier League. However, Juve should fight to keep him as top class attacking full backs are at a premium and it’s a doubt whether Spinazzola or, if he stays, Asamoah could fill his boots.

If Sandro does move on the profit of his transfer could be used in midfield. There has been constant speculation surrounding the futures of Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio, both for different reasons have been linked with moves away from the Allianz Stadium. For Khedira he has more often than not been too inconsistent and absent during games to justify wearing the black and white beyond the end of next season, despite this he is Allegri’s preferred choice for supporting Pjanic and no matter what Juventini think of his inclusion they need to get beyond the constant scolding of the German and realise his experience is vital, for the time being at least. Marchisio has suffered as a result of Khedira’s continued inclusion and must be wondering, as his career reaches its twilight, whether a gut-wrenching move away from his boyhood club would be best for him. It’s obvious he hasn’t reached the heights of his pre-knee injury form and he is no more than a squad player now so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move. Although seeing both Buffon and Marchisio leave in the same mercato could be too much for some fans.

The signing of Blaise Matuidi was supposed to be the missing piece in Juve’s midfield and although he has performed well this season it is apparent his signing isn’t enough to help Juve progress to the next level. He brings a lot of energy and determination but as highlighted in the first leg defeat to Real Madrid, cover for Miralem Pjanic is desperately needed. Pjanic himself has been better than his debut season in 2016/17, but he, like Khedira, goes missing too often or is being asked to play the bruiser role, which really doesn’t suit him.

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There have been plenty of potential midfield signings mentioned and when you’re a club the size of Juve it appears not a day goes by where there isn’t some kind of speculation. Emre Can was apparently a certainty to sign for Juve at the end of his contact with Liverpool however nothing has been finalised yet. He is a very similar player to Khedira, Marchisio and Matuidi and although his talent isn’t in question it is apparent he isn’t the type of player required at the moment. The dream signing for many Juventini would be Sergej Milinkovic-Savic; his mouth-watering, dynamic performances in Lazio’s midfield have attracted the attention of Europe’s elite, however it’s unlikely he’ll join Juve whether it’s because of the hefty price tag or whether it’s down to the working relationship between Juve and Lazio is a matter of opinion. Atalanta’s Bryan Cristiante and Sampdoria’s Dennis Praet are also possibilities, as is Nebil Fekir from Lyon; all have the attacking talent and flair to support Pjanic in the link between midfield and attack.

Anthony Martial has also been mentioned as a Juve target after reported meetings between his agent and Juve representatives after the game against Spurs at Wembley. Martial is a big name and he would be a very important signing in terms of Juve’s stature among their peers and the increased ability to attract big names will turn heads across Europe. However Martial is perhaps not what Juve need either especially when they have Juan Cuadrado, Federico Bernardeschi and Costa already in the squad and Marko Pjaca still to return. If it were to happen one would expect Mario Mandzukic to make way, he has made a name for himself since his 2015 move from Bayern Munich and was successfully transitioned to a left wing role last season, however it is not his natural position and if he isn’t going to play centre forward he is surely being wasted at Juve. He has looked well short of his best at times this season, despite two clinical headed goals against Real Madrid.

If Juve are indeed looking for a replacement striker, then the links with Alvaro Morata would be music to the ears of Juventini. After somewhat reluctantly leaving in 2016 he would be welcomed back like a long lost relative. He proved to be a very capable player in his two years at Juve and hasn’t exactly caught the imagination during his time at Chelsea, given their probable management change in the summer it is possible Morata could be available. He would certainly take some of the goal scoring burden from Gonzalo Higuain and might just propel Juve to the next tier of European teams.

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Of course we have a whole summer to debate the mercato and there are endless possible signings and squad permeations to be debated, but now is the time for Juve to lay the foundations of their reaction to the European disappointment. Changes are required; a change in personnel and a change in attitude. Both are easily attainable and as Max Allegri and Giuseppe Marotta are stood at the crossroads Juventini are praying they take the right path.