Slaven Bilic and his team got to Poland/Ukraine via sweet-revenge in the play-offs against their Euro 2008 conquerors Turkey, beating them 3-0 in the first leg in Istanbul and holding firm for a 0-0 draw in Zagreb in the second leg. Croatia were highly criticised throughout the whole campaign, mainly for failing to qualify for the World Cup 2010 but also for the unexpected loss against Georgia which cost Croatia first place in Group F. Fortune didn’t favour Croatia either by drawing them in a group alongside Spain, Italy and Ireland; if their key players are on form then the outsiders could still cause a surprise in Group C, even if this team is much different to that “golden generation” of World Cup 98.
There’s arguably only one player in the squad who is able to ignite Bilic’s usual 4-4-2 and that is superstar midfielder Luka Modric. Despite Croatia’s squad often not including a defensive player in the middle with Srna, Rakitic and Kranjcar starting the majority of games in the qualifiers, everything goes through the Tottenham playmaker’s sudden invention and shooting ability. When his flair is ‘switched off’, Croatia’s quality dramatically decreases and attempts coming from long range become more apparent, with many players able to find the target from outside the box; Croatia may also turn to the flanks where Corluka on the right and Strinic or Pranjic on the opposite side are restless providers of crosses. Pranjic, who has played very little for Bayern Munich this season at club level is usually deployed on the left flank or in the middle and with Heerenveen was once forth top-scorer in the Dutch Eredivise.
The abundance of attacking players in Bilic’s team can affect the balance of the Croatian side and frequently leads to naive mistakes at the back or counter-attacks for the opposition. In fact, when either Dujmovic or Vukojevic are not in the team as a shield for the defence, it is mainly up to veteran Simunic and youngsters Lovren/Schildefeld and sometimes Srna to act as a barrier for the opponents. The lack of pace and quality in this part of the pitch impacts the overall level of the team as a whole.
Nonetheless Bilic can count on great variety from those at his disposal for Croatia’s front-line, although those most likely to start are icon Ivica Olic and hard-working Mario Mandzukic. Some great displays with Everton don’t seem enough for Jelavic to get a regular spot for the Vatreni (nickname for the Croatian national side) though him and ex-Arsenal star “Dudu” Eduardo might serve as fearsome replacements during games.
The wildcard for the national team with the red and white chequered jerseys could be Borussia Dortmund’s explosive 23 year old, Ivan Perisic. The left winger, who can also cover every attacking position in the middle of the pitch is hungry for minutes at international level. He is the new Croatian-sensation and with his pace and creativity should be the key to unlock opponents’ defences. Moreover he can play with both feet and tends to delight spectators with crazy goals from long distance like the volley from 20 yards against Arsenal in the Champions league groups stages.
Mario Mandzukic might not be as big a star as fellow team-mate Modric, but Bilic has put full faith into his combative and versatile 6ft 1in striker over the last year. The former Dinamo Zagreb hitman has an average of 80 minutes played in the last 9 of Croatia’s international matches up to February and he repaid his manager’s trust scoring crucial goals, like the 2nd in the first-leg of the play-offs against Turkey. He moved to Wolfsburg in 2010 but after initially struggling to settle at the Volkswagen-Arena, he then scored 8 goals towards the business end of the season that vitally helped the team to avoid relegation. Mandzukic eventually blossomed in 2011-2012 with a respectable record of 12 goals and 10 assists.
With a physique suited to a centre-forward, Mandzukic is almost unstoppable in the air, he is also good at protecting the ball and has good pace. Due to his excellent positioning, his goals may look easy but that is down to being in the right places at the right times. One of the most appreciated qualities by his managers is his flexibility in regards to positioning, that allows him when needed to move between both wings to deliver crosses and serve goals even if he is most effective when he is the man getting on the end of good service.
Although being a constant danger in the box, the 26 year old striker has still to improve his finishing ability. His recent scoring record indicates that he mainly has found the goal through headers and just sometimes with his right foot but not with the left. Moreover he has been criticized by Wolfsburg’s manager, Felix Magath, for his reluctance to take responsibilities for the team, making him a very useful player but not one of the leaders.
Third place in the 1998 World Cup and the dramatic loss from a penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals against Turkey may have spoiled Croatian fans and the Croatian media alike, which has possibly led to it being taken for granted that a small nation with less than 5 million inhabitants qualifies for each international tournament.
Croatian fans are famous for being very passionate and putting that across to the players, nonetheless the enthusiasm surrounding the team is the lowest in recent memory and it is understood that fewer numbers will fly Poland and Ukraine to support the team.
The abundance of attacking players in Bilic’s team can affect the balance of the Croatian side and frequently leads to naive mistakes or counter-attacks for the opposition
Despite the tough group, the players themselves seem to be optimistic of progressing to the quarter-finals, however nationwide it is believed that only one realistic strategy is available to go through the group stages; seeking the three points in the opening game against Ireland where a more offensive line-up such as a 4-2-3-1 is likely to be used and deploying a very tight-defence against former world champions Spain and Italy. To defy the odds, Vatreni can count also on special motivation. Euro 2012 will see the international farewell for veterans Ivica Olica, Josip Simunic and manager Slaven Bilic, hence the last chance for those to impress with their national team.
Furthermore, the players that are still based in the national league will see such a major tournament as a good opportunity to redeem Croatian football’s image worldwide after the recent match fixing scandal that affected the public’s opinion and which led to the conviction of 15 team officials and players, some of them previously capped for Croatia at youth level.
-Noemi Diamantini (Football Watcher)