Croatia in the midst of a REBUILD ahead of Euro 2020 – with time not on their side after the World Cup
Croatia stunned the world, and perhaps even themselves, after reaching the World Cup final in 2018. Playing football quickly and effectively, they blew Argentina and England over, falling at the last hurdle in a 4-2 defeat to France.
Everything seemed to come together for them. A mix of experience, raw talent and players bursting with attacking exuberance helped them go all the way on their happy journey. Since then, however, things have not exactly gone smoothly.
That final was their first ever at a major tournament and rebuilding has proved difficult. Only seven of the 11 players who started that day have been named in the 26-man squad for Euro 2020, a clear sign of their team’s changing form.
Croatia stunned the world after beating England and reached the World Cup final in Russia in 2018
Mario Mandzukic (L) scored the winner against the Three Lions on a memorable day for Croatia
Their form has ebbed and flowed, with two shabby Nations League tournaments taking them right back to earth in a roaring crash after the highlights of their campaign in Russia.
Croatia started qualifying for fourth in the world this summer, but have been remarkably underpowered in their away games. They lost to Hungary and were held by just one point against Azerbaijan and Wales.
Despite winning all their other matches to take first place in their group, there was a clear vulnerability that England will try to exploit.
On paper, not much seems to have changed in Croatia’s playing style. They remain a very technical side, who like to keep the ball and try to control the pace of every game.
But as their warm-up games before the start of the tournament this week showed, they can be complacent in their build-up and miss out on a real lead. They can no longer rely on many of the star names from 2018.
Luka Modric remains Croatia’s most important player and will hopefully bring even more success
The retirement of Mario Mandzukic, the towering frontman who established England’s World Cup hopes with a swing of his left shoe, has undoubtedly taken its toll on the nation.
Three other players from the final three years ago have also left, namely Danijel Subasic, Ivan Strinic and Ivan Rakitic.
Since then, it has been an uphill battle to return to their previous heights – and their final warm-up match before taking on England on June 13 was marred by a tense defeat to Belgium.
Ivan Rakitic has unexpectedly retired from international service and will be a big miss in midfield
Gareth Bale scored for Wales in their draw with Croatia, which struggled in the away qualifiers
Romelu Lukaku had scored the only goal of the game in Brussels, although Croatia was able to display at least some of the characteristics and verve that have made them a surprising powerhouse in recent years.
Luka Modric remains at the heart of everything they do, and there’s plenty of experience around him too. These old heads may have fallen short in Brussels, but enough was shown to underline the danger they will pose to the Three Lions.
It is likely that Zlatko Dalic’s squad on Sunday will be very similar to the one named to meet England at Wembley – but countering their threat will be far from an easy task for Gareth Southgate.
Romelu Lukaku was able to take advantage of some poor defenses to score the winner on Sunday
Dalic’s side holds the ball well, remains patient in composing attacks and gives Modric the freedom and space to weave his magic on the lush green surface of the National Stadium.
There aren’t many better sights in the sport than the Real Madrid man performing at his smooth peak, but the playmaker has proven time and time again that he is also capable of shifting his astute nature through the gears.
Croatia had to run away from Belgium a handful of times on the counter, in part because Modric’s brain worked at lightning speed before picking out teammates with ease.
However, their main problem of scoring goals and dividing them roughly evenly is not entirely on Modric’s shoulders to solve. Others will have to jump in, and the spotlight has fallen firmly on Dinamo Zagreb ace Bruno Petkovic to perform.
Modric (left) and Ivan Perisic (right) were stars in 2018 and will help Croatia threaten again
He is a long way from Mandzukic, a man Croatia could often rely on to save them, and he is not known for racking up piles of goals for club or country. This may need to change if the team is to reach the knockout rounds.
Petkovic’s strengths, however, lie around his physicality and fine play, and this plays into the hands of Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic, the two wingers, allowing them to spring into action.
As indicated by Sports post in a verdict of the loss to Belgium, Croatia was again caught by poor organization at set pieces and not reacting and handling second balls.
Lukaku’s goal came about exactly that way. At first, a relatively routine delivery was not handled well, after which the Croatian rear guard was unable to organize in time to prevent the striker from striking.
Croatia was particularly bad at dealing with dead balls ahead of their opener with England
England owed much to their prowess over dead balls in Russia, and will take courage from Croatia’s struggle to repel them. Unless boss Dalic can fix the problem in the days leading up to the tournament, they’ll have to pay.
The coach may also be pulling his hair over a lack of options on the bench. This tournament is a great time to introduce new faces to the group and rely on them when called up.
Marseille centre-back Duje Caleta-Car played against Belgium instead of Dejan Lovren, and is slowly but surely working his way to a starting spot. Starlet Josko Gvardiol, currently with RB Leipzig, is another name to keep an eye on.
Dalic knows it will be crucial this summer to hang his hat on the entire 26-man squad for his team’s dreams, although the jury is certainly not yet in agreement on the majority of his reserve options.
Boss Zlatko Dalic will soon be forced to switch and old guard ability is now dwindling
Croatia lost the World Cup final to France and cannot be ruled out from going all the way again
Nikola Vlasic may be a household name for Everton supporters and he is now living up to his potential. Vlasic made his debut for Hajduk Split at the age of 16 and then moved to Goodison Park, but failed to impress.
Performing as No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation for Croatia, Vlasic starred and took up the mantle somewhat after Rakitic chose to step away from the international stage.
Meanwhile, Mislav Orsic single-handedly knocked Tottenham out of the Europa League last season after a stunning hat-trick for Dinamo Zagreb – and his tally for this year stood at 16 goals.
So age may not be on their side anymore, and they are on the cusp of a transition between the old guard and the new, but Croatia just can’t be ruled out from surprising the masses again. England will only hope that it is not again at their expense.
CROATIS EURO 2020 SQUAD
goalkeepers: Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Lovre Kalinic (Hajduk Split), Simon Sluga (Luton Town)
Defenders: Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Josip Juranovic (Legia Warsaw), Dejan Lovren (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Duje Caleta-Car (Olympique Marseille), Borna Barisic (Rangers), Mile Skoric (Osijek), Josko Guardiola (Dinamo Zagreb), Domagoj Bradaric (Lille).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Milan Badelj (Genoa), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea), Nikola Vlasic (CSKA Moscow), Mario Pasalic (Atalanta), Luka Ivanusec (Dinamo Zagreb).
Ahead: Bruno Petkovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Josip Brekalo (Vfl Wolfsburg), Ante Rebic (AC Milan), Mislav Orsic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ante Budimir (Osasuna)