The perennial international tournament dark horses, Croatia, are back again to upset your brackets.
Blessed with enough talented midfielders to feed a small village – or at least an El Clasico or a Milan derby – there are some who see this Croatia side as the surprise package of this summer’s tournament.
With Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Milan Badelj, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, the litany of big names is not short in this Croatia side.
And yet they failed to impress in their qualifying campaign: failing to finish ahead of Iceland in their group and only getting to Russia through a play-off against Greece.
In part, this was because of a coaching change which came midway through the qualifying stages: Ante Cacic being sacked in favour of Zlatko Dalic.
With Dalic at the helm, the confidence will be slowly growing in the Croatian camp. In a group from which they could easily progress, their opening match against Nigeria will set them up for success or failure.
Route to Russia
Rather unconvincingly, Croatia’s qualifying results landed them second in Group I, two points behind World Cup group mates Iceland.
Having beaten Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo to the runners-up position, they faced Greece in a two-legged bout to confirm their tickets to Russia.
No hollow wooden horses present, the Greek were easily disposed of as Croatia won 4-1 at home with the return leg in Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium resulting in a goalless draw.
It is hard to see any obvious weaknesses in Croatia’s starting line-up for the World Cup, although Dejan Lovren will obviously by the main contender.
Beyond this, though, a double pivot of Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic – ably deputised by Milan Badelj – should offer protection for Lovren and allow Luka Modric the freedom to operate in the pocket of space between the opposition’s midfield and defence
Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric will flank him and will look to service Mario Mandzukic as the lone striker.
Mandzukic is often played out wide for Juventus so he will be looking forward for the chance to return to a more familiar role for his country.
Key Player: Luka Modric
Often considered the best central midfielder on the planet, Luka Modric might currently be the best player at the club that just won their third consecutive Champions League, let alone in Croatia’s national team.
Playing 43 games for Real Madrid this season, Modric is clearly a mainstay for a side who are ram-packed with stars.
There are doubts to be had about Los Blancos but their talismanic number ten is as trustworthy and talented a midfielder as you will ever see.
More than just his play, Croatian hopes and dreams rest on his teammates ability to capitalise on Modric’s progression, creation and delivery.
Group stage matchup
Grouped with an offensively potent Nigeria and an Argentina-team that needs absolutely no introduction, coach Zlatko Dalic will undoubtedly realise that finishing below Iceland again will see his team sent home early this summer.
As a result, Croatia will need to beat Nigeria in their opening fixture to keep their hopes of advancement from Group D alive.
However, although this may sound like a tenuous proposition, there is every chance that Croatia could prosper in the group and, if Argentina slip up, it could be the Croats who top the group.
Provided the individual talent can blend, Croatia should be able to seal advancement, snagging second place in the group after Argentina have taken what’s rightfully theirs.
There are, however, better groups to be the second-best team in, as the group D runners-up will most likely see themselves facing the most talented team the French have fielded in at least two decades.
No doubt the Croatian World Cup dream dies here but, then again, any lack of faith in them is precisely what makes them a dark horse.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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