How They Got Here
As has sadly become a hallmark of Slaven Bilic’s managerial reign, Croatia made tough work of their eventually successful qualification campaign. Having, as Scott Carson will no doubt remember, trumped England to the last European Championships, Croatia failed to make the cut for the 2010 South African World Cup. Here then, drawn in a relatively manageable qualification group, Croatia looked certain to shake off the blip in their progress that was 2010 and ride happily into the Ukrainian-Polish sunset. But as is often the case in qualification groups spread over long months and years, the perceived most formidable nation didn’t prevail, as seasoned underdogs and overachievers Greece, enjoying more footballing than economic success, finished top of the group.
The 2-0 defeat in Athens in the October of 2011 sealed the fate of Euro 2012 qualification, consigning the Croats to a place in the scramble of the play-off draw. And whilst Euro 2012 group rivals Ireland were gifted with the chance to play the rather weak Estonians, Croatia had to contend with one of Europe’s other formerly successful overachievers in Turkey.
Bilic, then, demonstrated the value that his managerial skill deserves, despite a barrage of criticism for both not qualifying initially for the 2010 World Cup and then failing to capitalise on the perceived weak group given to them during the Euro 2012 qualification stage. The former West Ham and Everton centre-back’s worth as national team boss was demonstrated with the crucial decision of who to select in the forward roles for the two play-off ties. In the first leg in Istanbul on November 11th, Bilic opted for Bayern Munich forward Ivica Olic and Wolfsburg target man Mario Mandzukic. Both proceeded to score inside the first half, with Vedran Corluka adding the third after the interval. Bilic’s decisions, complete with an inadequate performance by the Turkish squad meant that the return leg in Zagreb could be ground into a 0-0 draw. With that Bilic’s domestic reputation went someway to being restored, his international reputation was further boosted and Croatia had their place on the plane to Ukraine and Poland.
Why They’ll Win
Winning the whole tournament may be a step too far for the still relatively newly independent republic. The golden generation of 1998 managed to progress all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup, however, a more realistic, if still extremely challenging aim, may be progressing to the same stage as the 2008 generation: the quarter-finals of the European Championships.
An extremely talented midfield, featuring the Tottenham pair of Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric, as well as the Dinamo Kyiv anchor-man Ognjen Vukocevic and the Shakhar Donetsk and national team captain Darijo Srna, will be the mainstay of any possible success that the Croats may have at this summer’s tournament. However, the possible exclusion from the final squad, announced on the 28th of May, of Lyon centre-back Dejan Lovren may seriously dent Croatia’s chances of navigating a group including the aforementioned Republic of Ireland, Spain and Italy. With manager Bilic commenting ‘his [Lovren’s] injury is serious but we don't need to rush with the decision yet’, it appears the Croatian medical staff will attempt to delay any possible final decision for as long as possible, maximising the chances of the towering defender featuring in the tournament.
If the outlook laid out here, with the issues of facing both Italy and Spain before the knock-out stages have even arrived, looks bleak then fear not Croatian football fans as daily sports newspaper Sportske Novosti have pointed out that the Croatian team have only played out a total of 26,296 minutes this season, whereas the Spaniard and the Italians have played 41,390 and 32,628 minutes respectively. The logic of Sportske Novosti here being that the Spaniards and the Italians will be too tired in the opening games to capitalise on their superiority, pointing to Spain’s defeat to Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup and roping in the Swiss national team’s fitness coach Zvonko Komes to offer some quotes supporting their views. Draw your own conclusions.
Why They Won’t Win
The Croatian squad, similar to that of Russia, come into the tournament knowing that by the conclusion they will face the prospect of a new manager coming in, with Slaven Bilic already having agreed to move east to Lokomotiv Moskva and the Russian Premier League. Whether this pre-arranged move has a positive or negative impact on the national team’s chances remains to be seen, however, it does offer a source of likely friction should tempers fray in the camp or things begin to unravel on the pitch.
Aside from the issue of Bilic’s departure, much will depend on whether injuries strike the squad, especially in the defensive and goalkeeping departments. Aside from former Spartak Moskva and Tottenham ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa, the stand-ins of Danijel Subasic, Ivan Kelava and Goran Blazevic offer little quality and even less experience, meaning that if Pletikosa were to become injured in the opening game against Ireland one of these band of below-par shot-stoppers would have to face the might of both Italy and Spain. The same can be said in the defensive region, with the aforementioned fitness issues of Dejan Lovren and the ageing body of Josip Simunic exposing the weaker Gordon Schildenfeld and the promising but largely untested Domagoj Vida to possible first-team action.
We’ve Seen Before
Much of Croatia’s squad feature in prominent clubs in popular European leagues, however, perhaps the most talented of the lot, Tottenham’s Luka Modric is yet to dominate on the international scale that his club form would suggest he could. His ascent, under current manager Bilic, to a mainstay of the side in time for Euro 2008 came whilst his club role was still made up mainly of occupying the space ahead of the midfield and behind the attack. Since the midfielder’s establishment at Spurs, though, a deeper role has become the norm, seeing more of the ball and being given the freedom to dictate the course of the game from the half-way line.
Should Modric, who, like Spurs, tailed off towards the end of the season, be able to capture his best play-making form, using the ball precisely and efficiently, then Croatia should be able to see off the challenge of Ireland and to put up an effective fight to the often-careless Italians and the sometimes lethargic Spaniards.
With Bilic quite sensibly deciding that 18-year-old prospect Mateo Kovacic isn’t ready for the experience of the senior national team and a full tournament, the brightest young talent comes in the form of another Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Milan Badelj. As Football Manager 2012 (other management simulations games are available) aficionados will recognise, Badelj is a six foot plus deep-lying playmaker, fitting not in the Scholes or Modric role but more in the rangy and languid style of Michael Carrick, although with more attacking intent. Unfortunately for Badelj, and those Football Manager players who might want to see him in the flesh for the first time, Croatia’s strength in the central midfield department may mean that the midfielder plays a bit-part role, should he progress to the final squad selection, beating off competition from the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Tomislav Dujmovic.
How They Will Play
Whilst many Croatian fans, and maybe even pundits, will call for a return to the 3-5-2 tactics used by the 1998 golden generation, Bilic is likely to stick a solid base of four at the back in either a 4-4-2 system of a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation. Much may depend on the opposition, with an issue as to whether captain Darijo Srna should play on the right hand side of midfield or drop into the right-back slot being determined by the formation selected. Croatia have the players for either system and, at a push, even for a 3-5-2 should Bilic seek to channel the thoughts of Miroslav Blazevic.
However the Croats, clad in red and white checked jerseys, play, there will be an emphasis on the rotation of possession, but not for rotations sake. The likes of Modric and Kranjcar in midfield will add flair and creativity for Mandzukic, Olic and Eduardo to capitalise on. With a range of players able to play a range of different roles, even in the confines of the same position of the field, Bilic has the opportunity to change, adapt and evolve his tactics as the tournament progresses and the games come around increasingly frequently. As was mentioned previously, much, especially in the more difficult games, may depend on the work of Luka Modric, however, the efficiency of finishing from whichever forward(s) Bilic selects will also determine much. Eduardo and Olic are the only two forwards to have scored more than ten goals in the red and white shirt, although with Nikica Jelavic’s stock rising both here in England and throughout Europe, the Everton striker could underline the credentials he’s illustrated since making the move south from Glasgow Rangers. Croatia are, have and probably always will be seen as one of those teams slightly weaker than the more prominent nations, however, as usual, that won’t stop them from attempting to live up to any ‘dark horses’ monikers that are thrown their way.
The recently released Croatia kit by Nike is available at Kitbag.