If you’re a jilted American fan in need of a World Cup team to root for but you’re put off by the prospect of frontrunning and cheering for a titan like Germany or Brazil, I humbly suggest jumping on the Croatia bandwagon.
Croatia have everything the neutral could ask for. Do you want to see superstar players? Vatreni’s could conceivably play a midfield trio made up exclusively of Barcelona and Real Madrid players, and their star forward has scored in multiple Champions League finals. Like wild fans? Croatian fans love to set things on fire! Are you into fashion? Feast your eyes on this kit.
Croatia brought the core of their 2018 World Cup squad to Brazil, where they scored the first goal of the tournament, then disappointed with a third-place finish in the group stage. Their only win came against a Cameroon squad that was in open revolt, and the team didn’t nearly live up to high expectations. At Euro 2016, however, they played better in the group stage and won their group thanks to Ivan Perišić thrilling last-minute goal against Spain.
And yet they couldn’t put one of their 17 shots against Portugal on target in the Round of 16 and Croatia crashed out once again after allowing a 117th minute winner. Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić are two of the world’s best midfielders, yet they haven’t done much with Croatia, and this might be their last and best chance to make a long run in a major tournament. Croatia made the semifinal in 1998, and this group definitely has the talent to win multiple knockout round games. It’s remarkable that a country with the approximate population of the Detroit metro area has produced so many world-class players, and between their dynamite midfielders and arsenal of capable goalscorers, they could potentially hang three on any team in the world. Still, they could also easily let a team like Iceland score a few cheap ones and then flame out of a sneakily tough group after three games.
Just look at their qualification run, which was so frustrating that coach Ante Cačić was fired with one game left in the final group stage. Croatia only scored 15 goals in their 10 group stage games, the fewest of any European team that qualified. That’s baffling for such a talented team, though their backline, which seemed less than stout, conceded just four times. If they display that level of defensive aptitude while also delivering on their offensive talents, they could easily overwhelm Nigeria and Iceland, and maybe even challenge Messi and Argentina. They could also very easily eat shit. Who doesn’t like a little volatility?
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subašić (Monaco), Lovre Kalinić(Gent), Dominik Livaković (Dinamo Zagreb)
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinić(Sampdoria), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Šime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivarić (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Duje Caleta-Ćar (Red Bull Salzburg)
Midfielders: Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona), Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozović (Inter Milan), Filip Bradarić (Rijeka)
Forwards: Mario Mandžukić (Juventus), Ivan Perišić (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinić (AC Milan), Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Schalke), Ante Rebić (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Vatreni (The Blazers)
Perišić’s job is a relatively uncomplicated one: tear down the left flank and stretch the defense. The winger can slip in crosses either foot, dribble around left backs and cut it back to Mandžukić or one of his midfielders, or simply run to the goal and score. He’s one of the fastest players in Group D, and Croatia are at their best when they work down his left flank. Croatia are set up to possess the ball, which isn’t exactly suited to Perišić’s talents, but as he’s shown at successful stops with Borussia Dortmund, VfL Wolfsburg, and Inter Milan, he’s not a pure counterattacker.
Inter have been sad trash men for a few seasons now, yet Perišić has consistently performed at a high level and created more scoring chances than anyone else on his team. On this Croatia side, he’ll play alongside and perhaps even a bit in front of Mandžukić, who is the perfect forward for the passes Perišić likes to make. Star wingers can be the sorts of players who need to see a great deal of the ball to be effective or can’t do much if they play on a team with strong central midfielders like Croatia. But Perišić only plays better with Modrić, Rakitić, and Mandžukić all attracting defensive attention and pulling strings. After all, he was tremendous on that Wolfsburg team that also featured Bas Dost and Kevin de Bruyne. If Croatia need a late goal against the run of play, which they will at some point in the tournament, Perišić is the most likely candidate to create something out of nothing.
Modrić is, simply put, a perfect midfielder. At various times in his career, he’s been asked to play as a holding midfielder in front of his defense, as a straight-up creative Number 10, as a box-to-box terror connecting defense and attack, and more or less every conceivable hybrid of the three traditional midfield positions. He’s excelled at every role, and after winning three Champions League crowns with this untouchable Real Madrid juggernaut, he’s essentially invented a new standard for how the best midfielders in the world should play.
What makes Modrić truly special is not just his world-class passing ability, but the way that he blends it in with his other duties. While he can smash long balls or loft chipped passes to runners, he can also lock down a section of the field and win the ball back as well as anyone. Generally speaking, the more Modrić is involved in the game, the better it will go for his team. The reason he’s moved back further as his career has progressed is that he’s a more integral part of an attack if he lays the groundwork for goal scoring opportunities rather than finishes them off. Croatia are built around his talents, and the versatility of Modrić’s midfield teammates allow him a great deal of freedom to do whatever he wants.
Croatia will line up in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, with goalscoring dynamo Subasić in goal, and Vrsaljko, (gulp) Dejan Lovren, Modrić, Rakitić, Mandžukić, and Perisić locked in as other starters. There are a few talented forwards who can play up front alongside Mandžukić, and Vrsaljko’s aggression on the right side means they can easily play across the entire width of the field.
Still, for a team that plays such an aggressive formation and has such talented stars, Croatia’s scoring record has been maddeningly inconsistent. Dalić’s solution has been to move Modrić higher up the field and play him as a true creative attacking midfielder, with Rakitić supporting him. This might not be the best use of Modrić’s talents, but it certainly allows Croatia’s best player to have the ball at his feet in the most dangerous possible positions. The problem here is that there’s not an easy role for Kovačić or Brozović, since neither is a full-on defensive midfielder, which Croatia needs now that Modrić has moved up. So Dalić will either have to play a worse player ahead of his backline or play one of the two young guns out of position. It won’t be an easy choice, and how he plays it could decide if Croatia can regain their defensive form from qualification.
All times Eastern
June 16, 3 p.m.: Croatia vs. Nigeria at Kaliningrad Stadium
June 21, 2 p.m.: Croatia vs. Argentina at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
June 26, 2 p.m.: Croatia vs. Iceland at Rostov Arena