2014 World Cup Previews, Group A: Croatia

By Mike Cardillo

Team: Croatia
Group: A
Schedule: June 12 vs. Brazil; June 18 vs. Cameroon; June 23 vs. Mexico
World Cup Record: 6-2-5 (Third place, 1998)
Qualifying Form: Qualified via UEFA playoff win over Iceland

Manager: Niko Kovač, squad member of 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

Player to Watch: Luka Modric. It’s cliché to pick Modric, but the Real Madrid star is one of the world’s most complete midfielders. Most “experts” — i.e. the British media — labeled the ex-Tottenham player a flop during his first season in the Spanish capital. Released from the shackles of Jose Mourinho’s borderline anti-football, Modric has thrived under Carlo Ancelotti helping Real potentially win both the Champions League and Spanish League. “Little Luka” burst onto the scene as a 22-year-old at Euro 2008 — he should be even better six years later.

Tactics/Style: Croatia began qualifying trying to field two out-and-out strikers up top but later shifted into a continental 4-2-3-1 anchored by its two key players: Modric and Ivan Rakitic. This lineup gives Croatia little more balance, even though it means Ivic Olic, Eduardo and Nikica Jelavić are either on the bench or out of position with Mario Mandžukić the lone striker. Mandžukić will miss the opener vs. Brazil due to a red card in qualifying.

WAG of Note: Figure the cameras will find a way to get a glance of Mirela Foric, wife of team captain Darijo Srna.

Reason to root for: Croatia’s checkered tablecloth red-and-white uniforms are the most distinctive, if not best in international soccer. If you want to sound hip, you can regale all your friends about the small nation’s continued ability to churn out “technical” midfielders. Game of Thrones also films most of its Kings Landing scenes in Croatia, so there’s that.

Reason to root against: Croatia isn’t nearly as compelling nowadays after former coach Slaven Bilic took his guitar, earring, cigarettes and DGAF rockstar attitude to elsewhere following the conclusion of Euro 2012.

Odds of winning: 150-to-1

Miscellany: Dejan Lovren has been excellent for Southampton in defense this season. He should start, despite infrequent appearances in qualifying. … 17-year-old Alen Halilović — capped three times — didn’t make the provisional Croatia squad. He is one of the under-18 players signed by Barcelona that helped the Catalan giants land a (temporary) transfer ban. … Croatia went 5-1-0 at the start of qualifying and then went winless in its last four, including a pair of losses to Scotland. … Mandžukić tied with about 18 other guys to lead Euro 2012 scoring with three. … Believe it or not Harry Redknapp favorite Niko Kranjcar (on-loan at QPR) is still in the mix for Croatia and may start. … By the end of the tournament, Rakitic will probably be linked to every Premier League team, along with Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG et al. … To a lesser extent the same could be said of 20-year-old Mateo Kovacic, a part-time starter at Inter Milan, although that might be more of a statement of Inter’s rapid decline post-Mourinho more than anything else. … Josip Simunic will miss out on the World Cup after receiving a 10-game ban for leading the home crowd in a Nazi-associated chant last year.

Something else to consider: Croatia landed the toughest initial draw, matching up with host Brazil in the first match of the tournament on June 12. There’s two ways to look at this. Brazil will never be as susceptible to a slip-up as they will in the first game, with the eyes of the nation fixated upon them. Perhaps Croatia uses this to its advantage and grinds out a result. The opposite is also very possible: Brazil bursts out of the gates and blitzes Croatia, putting Kovac’s team in a must-win situation vs. Cameroon followed by a likely win-or-go home match with Mexico.

Last word: Croatia is a solid team, among the best of the “second-tier” nations in the field of 32. Problem is, the draw does it no favors. If Croatia survives Brazil and Mexico, it’ll likely get Spain or the Netherlands in the Round of 16. Given that its key players — Modric and Rakitic — ply their trade in La Liga, maybe it gives Croatia a glimmer of hope. Thanks to the way the balls were pulled out of the pots in December this edition of the Vaterini is mostly filling out the numbers.

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