Croatia: Silent and understated, the dark horses gallop
The narrative centres on Argentina and their demise, so Croatia slip off the radar once more.
When Ivan Rakitic tapped into an empty Argentine net in the 91st minute, cameras focussed on Diego Maradona welling up in the stands as he watched his beloved nation crash out of the World Cup at the group stage.
La Albiceleste – and their four-year demise since the final at the Maracana four years ago – was the centre of discussion. The hot topic dominating the back pages.
Not much was said about a triumphant Croatia sealing their place in the last-16 of the tournament, or Luka Modric’s central role in this unexpected mauling. Akin to his nation, Modric is quiet and understated in his performances, bar a spectacular curling effort to double their lead as the game approached its end.
Continue to understate Croatia, but be warned… It’s at your own peril.
Croatia were indeed aided by Argentina’s own shortcomings, as Willy Caballero sent them on their way to victory with a wretched mistake that left his side both bemused and miserable, but, don’t misconstrue, this was an assured performance from the Croats.
This was a victory led by captain Modric and his support band to the tune of Zlatko Dalic’s hymn sheet. “Argentina were not confused,” Dalic explained, “we were excellent.”
Every member of the band knew their part and had rehearsed it to perfection, made to look all the more impressive set against a backdrop of Argentine disarray, led by conductor Jorge Sampaoli, who had seemingly left his music at home.
The former Chile manager cut the figure of someone who knew he’d forgotten his own tune, but had to improvise to ensure his band kept playing something. Anything. Argentina, thus, were chaotic and disorganised, in stark contrast to the functioning Croatian collective.
A team, as opposed to a group of individuals.
Marcelo Brozovic provided a commanding presence in front of the back four, a sturdy foundation for the creative duo of Modric and Rakitic to push forwards, epitomised by both getting on the scoresheet.
Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic dropped into a four-man midfield out of possession, and capably advanced on the ball into a coherent front three with Mario Mandzukic, resulting in the opener, as Rebic applied pressure on Caballero. Hence, forcing a mistake and the Eintracht Frankfurt forward netting his second international goal.
“I have trusted my team from the first day,” Dalic said after the game, as the work of the collective prevailed. Trust in the team and the team trusts in the system.
Against Nigeria, similarly, Croatia put the sword to their opponents and made them regret taking a lackadaisical approach to the fixture by playing with an urgency their counterparts could not cope with. An own goal and a Modric penalty proved the eventual difference, but the disparity in their performances was pronounced.
Croatia have arrived with a chip on their shoulder. A point to prove.
Perceived as a potential winner of the European Championship two years ago, Croatia were perhaps undeservedly knocked out in the last-16 by eventual winners Portugal, a late Ricardo Quaresma goal sealing their fate in extra time after the 90 minutes.
This did not stop them demonstrating their quality, however, with a group stage win over holders Spain altering their label as peripheral dark horses to tournament favourites.
Croatia, yet again, arrive at a major tournament as perennial dark horses in debate over potential winners. Perhaps the darkest of all horses. However, now in the last-16, Croatia are yet to concede, have scored five goals and are functioning superbly as a unit.
This is their ‘golden generation,’ their best side in decades and stocked in quality in all areas of the pitch. Dalic knows it, the players know it, but the world doesn’t. It’s time to prove it.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Croatia and the rest of the action from Day 8 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.