Croatia may have only gained independence in 1991, but since that time the nation’s football team has established itself as a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. A third place finish at the 1998 World Cup and runs to the quarter finals of the European Championships in 1996 and 2008 suggests the team from the Balkans is more than capable.
At Euro 2008, Croatia’s exit came at the hands of Turkey through a penalty shoot-out defeat. In the process of qualifying for this summer’s finals, they exacted some revenge by defeating the Turks. After finishing second in their qualification group behind Greece, Croatia faced Turley over two legs in November. They travelled to Istanbul and recorded a comprehensive 3-0 win in the first leg. The 0-0 draw in the return leg allowed Croatia to clinch its place at a third consecutive European Championship finals. The wonderfully gifted squad now has the chance to pit their wits against the defending and world champions Spain, as well as Italy and the Republic of Ireland in Group C.
While it promises to be an intriguing group, it should not hold any fears for the Croatians, with its array of attacking talent including Luka Modric, Nikica Jelavic, Darijo Srna, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic. All are top performers in the various European leagues in which they play.
Tottenham playmaker Modric, with his ability to unlock opposition defences, is the team’s talisman. The potential for Croatia to complement his skills with the goal-scoring prowess of Jelavic is obvious. Jelavic, despite his prolific form in British football, first with Rangers and now with Everton, is yet to score in a competitive game for Croatia. Combining this fact with the considerable talents of the other strikers in manager Slaven Bilic’s squad, means Jelavic, at least initially, may be overlooked for a starting berth in Poland and Ukraine. Indeed this is virtually inevitable since the Bundesliga-based duo of Ivica Olic – set for his fifth major finals – and Mario Mandzukic combined with such devastating effect to spearhead the play-off win over Turkey. Bilic is likely to invite them to re-ignite that partnership.
Responsibility for providing the two front men with quality service will inevitably fall on the shoulders of Modric, but Niko Kranjcar, his Spurs teammate, and Srna are also capable of bearing some of that burden.
Srna was handed the captaincy following the retirement of Niko Kovac in 2008, whose brother Robert also called time on his international career one year later and has arguably never properly been replaced in the centre of defence. Although out of favour with his club side, Dinamo Zagreb, Josip Simunic – also a veteran of four previous Croatian major finals campaigns – is again fancied to play at centre back, partnered by either Gordon Schildenfeld or Dejan Lovren, both of whom are relative novices at international level.
Scepticism as to how a back line marshalled by two of the aforementioned three will deal with the attacking guile of Spain and the astuteness of Italy is understandable, but their ability to provide a solid platform from which Modric & company can flourish should not be ignored. Those wearing the iconic red & white chequered shirts of Croatia have lit up previous European Championships and it is not beyond the country’s current batch of stars to do so again at Euro 2012.
Player to Watch – Mario Mandzukic Although a far lesser known commodity on the international stage than his globally revered colleague Luka Modric, VfL Wolfsburg attacker Mario Mandzukic has demonstrated his ability to pose a powerful goal threat – no more so than when playing a prominent role in the humbling of Turkey in the November play-offs which sealed Croatia’s qualification.
Corluka – Lovren – Simunic – Strinic
Srna – Dujmovic – Modric – Kranjcar
Mandzukic – Olic
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