History: The Croats are one of the inheritors of a rich Yugoslav legacy. Before dissolution, the Yugoslavian National Team reached two Euro finals, three international semifinals and another three World Cup quarterfinals. The team also won Gold in 1960, three silvers and a bronze at the Olympics.
Since Independence, Croatia has qualified for six of eight major tournaments, missing Euro 2000 and the 2010 World Cup. Their “golden generation” in the late 1990s beat Germany and the Netherlands en route to the World Cup semifinal in 1998. They made a strong run as well at Euro 2008, but were dispatched by Turkey on penalties in the quarterfinal.
Qualification: Croatia finished two points behind Greece in qualifying Group F with a 7-2-1 record and a +11 goal difference. They beat Turkey 3-0 on aggregate in the second-place playoff to advance. In friendlies, Croatia beat Estonia 3-1 on Wednesday and lost to Sweden 3-1 in February.
Coach: Slaven Bilic is a character. The 43-year-old has coached the Croatian national team since 2006. He eliminated England in Euro 2008 qualifying and brought Croatia to the 2008 quarterfinals. He also has a law degree and plays guitar in a heavy metal band. As a player, he’s best known for his disgraceful act during the 1998 World Cup semifinal. His admitted playacting got (current French coach) Laurent Blanc red-carded (1st of his career), forcing him to miss the World Cup Final.
Squad: Midfield is Croatia’s strength. Their star is Luka Modric, an elite playmaker for Tottenham. They have a solid winger in captain Darijo Srna. They can also slot in credible attackers, such as Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic, Dortmund’s Ivan Perisic and Tottenham’s Niko Krancjar. Expect Ognjen Vukojevic or Tomislav Dujmovic to be inserted for a defensive presence, at least against Spain and Italy.
Croatia has no striking stud, using their forwards mostly as advanced, pressing defenders. The starters should be departing Bayern Munich veteran Ivica Olic and Wolgsburg’s Mario Mandzukic. The Croats could also opt for in form Nikica Jelavic, who had nine goals in 13 EPL appearances for Everton over the season’s second half or former Arsenal man Eduardo.
The back four could be a liability. It’s an aging group and likely starters such as Josip Simunic, Verdan Corluka and Danijel Pranjic have fallen out of favor at club level. The goalkeeper will likely be Stipe Pletikosa, a full international since 1999, who put in a very solid performance at Euro 2008.
Tactics: Croatia play a 4-4-2. They are tactically adept. They press with their forwards and absorb pressure. They look to counter attack quickly and capitalize on their skill in transition play.
Prognosis: It’s easy to see Croatia being eliminated. It’s also conceivable they could beat Ireland, earn a draw against Italy and advance from the group to an attainable semifinal against France. They aren’t a brilliant team, but they are capable if they enter with a head of steam.
Fun Fact: Croatia invented the modern neck tie or “kravata” in the 1600s.
[Photo via Presswire]