Soccer

World Cup Team Profile - Croatia

Group: A

Confederation: UEFA

Coach: Niko Kovac

Captain: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk)

Full Croatia Roster

The Road to Rio: Croatia’s advancement from the qualification phase to the playoffs was less a matter of gaining ground and less a matter of holding tight. They managed just one point out of their final four games barely holding off the rival Serbs, who put together two wins and a draw in a too-little-too-late final push.

With 17 points and a plus-three goal-differential, the Croatians were second worst in both categories amongst all teams to successfully make the playoff round. Fortunately for Croatia, they would draw the only team with a worse goal-differential and a team that finished level on points in the playoff round: Iceland.

They would hold Iceland scoreless in the opening leg, getting back to Zagreb with the advantage. First-half goals from Mario Mandzukic and Darijo Srna would provide the goals, despite the former getting sent off with a straight red and Croatia would book passage to Brazil after watching South Africa from home in 2010.

Last World Cup appearance: Germany 2006 (Group Stage)
First World Cup appearance: France 1998 (Third Place)
Previous World Cup appearances: 3
Best World Cup finish: Third Place (France 1998)

Every team wants to come out of the gate strong at the World Cup, but it just might be more imperative for Croatia to do so than for any other team in the tournament. Kovac’s Vatreni have the unenviable task of playing in the tournament’s opening match against the host Brazilians. If Croatia can avoid getting blown out of the water by the home team in front of a rabidly partisan home crowd, the chances of the Vatreni moving on from the group stage will grow immeasurably.

It won’t be easy for Kovac’s charges, though. The team will be without its biggest offensive threat in Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), who will serve the final game of a two-game suspension for seeing red in the first game of Croatia’s two-game playoff with Iceland. Still, Kovac is not bereft of offensive options and far from it. Brazilian-born Eduardo (Shakhtar Donetsk) or 35-year-old veteran Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg) could slot into Madzukic’s spot in the opener.

With Luka Modric (Real Madrid) the engine that will drive the midfield offensively, Kovac’s biggest question will be how to incorporate Inter starlet Mateo Kovacic into his starting XI. Modric will likely be partnered in the centre of midfield with Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic, meaning that Kovacic will need to be employed wide, a solution that could be beneficial. If there is a glaring need in the finesse-heavy Croatian midfield, it’s for a more defensive-minded player. Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev) would fit that bill, but that could mean sacrificing the stylish Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg) in the starting XI.

At the back, Croatia will be anchored by the impressive Dejan Lovren. The Southampton central defender was a revelation this season at St. Mary’s and will be one of the most sought-after defenders on the transfer market in England this summer. Left back has been a spot of bother for Croatia in recent years, so it will be interesting to see who Kovac turns to there (Pananthinaikos’ Danijel Pranjic?) to round out a defence that will also include captain Srna and former long-time Spurs half-back Vedran Corluka. On the whole, this is a solid, if unspectacular, backline.

Still, it comes back to that opening match. Croatia will fancy itself able to get points from Mexico and Cameroon. If the result against Brazil isn’t too deflating, look for the Vatreni to be primed to move onto the knockout round.



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