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.

 

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.