After finishing runners-up four years ago in Russia, expectations from Croatian fans are high for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Coach Zlatko Dalić has shrewdly played down those exceptions, preferring to keep his side’s feet on the ground by saying just being in Qatar was a major achievement for the small nation. Dalić has not put any added pressure on his team, iterating that they will do their best and take it one game at a time.
The 56-year-old tactician though will be quietly confident as he heads into the tournament having won a tough UEFA Nations League group which included world champions France and a dangerous Denmark.
Most pundits are not giving the ‘Vatreni’ much chance of coming near their 2018 heroics, but the underdog tag will favour them.
We take a look at Croatia’s chances and some of the key factors in Qatar.
Croatia will take a lot of confidence from the fact that they recorded back to back victories in their last two competitive matches against Denmark and Austria to win their Nations League group and advance to the semi-finals for the first time.
The Nations League saw Croatia playing some great football as Dalić continued to use the tournament to blood in a number of newer players. There was also a victory over foes France for the first ever time after six loses and four draws.
Croatia has only lost one competitive match in the last 15, that coming at the hands of Austria back in June. Also positive is the form of captain Luka Modrić. Modrić has been impressive so far in 2022 for club and country.
The victory over world champions France at State de France proves that Dalić has the squad to beat any team on the day at the World Cup. Just like in Russia, everything though will again revolve around Modrić.
Modrić is so important to the success of Croatia that it can almost be said that if he does not have a good tournament then Croatia will not either.
Croatia is heavily dependant on the Madrid midfielder. The tactics revolve around him and if he can reproduce the quality everyone knows he is capable of, then anything is possible again.
Another key player for Croatia will be Marcelo Brozović. The Inter midfielders tireless running and defensive work is crucial for Dalić’s system. When Brozović was out injured recently, his work in defence and freeing up Modrić was sorely missed.
Croatia also have a number of exciting young players who could play a role in Qatar. Lovro Majer, Borna Sosa and Joško Gvardiol are all exciting youngsters in great form for their clubs who could make an impact.
A lot of eyes will also be on goalkeeper Dominik Livaković. Memorable performances from Dražen Ladić in 1998 and Danijel Subašić in 2018 shows the importance of having a safe pair of hands in goal if you want to go far in the tournament.
One of the main concerns is in the striker department. Not since Davor Šuker has Croatia had a world-class marksman who could finish most chances that came his way. Mario Mandžukić was effective in Russia four years ago, but this tournament there are concerns.
Andrej Kramarić, Bruno Petković, Marko Livaja and Ante Budimir have all been tried in the no.9 role without either of them stamping their mark on it.
Scoring goals has been an issue and it seems as if Kramarić will be given a chance first in the opening match.
Another concern could be the heat. As it showed in the recent warm-up match in Saudi Arabia, Croatia often struggle when temperatures soar and they are a side who do prefer it cooler.
Unlike 2018, when the bulk of the squad had been together for a number of years experiencing highs and lows, this is a relatively new group with many at their first major tournament. Time will tell if that will be a factor.
Once again one of the key factors will be how Croatia starts the tournament.
Unity, passion, having the fans and media behind them, players staying injury free, and of course, luck, were all factors which helped lead Croatia to success in Russia.
Victory in the first game against Morocco is key for these factors to come in to play. If Croatia don’t start well then it will be harder to muster all that up, so that first match, although a cliche saying, really is crucial.
The bookies are not giving Croatia a great chance of coming close this year. Brazil are tipped favourites with Argentina, France, England, Spain and Germany all highly fancied. Croatia are currently 12th favourite to win the Word Cup at odds of 50/1.
But the bookies do get it wrong, like in 2018 when they did not tip Croatia to go as far as they did.
If Croatia can advance from the group to the last 16 injury free, and just like in 2018 draw on unity and passion, then with Croatians at home and all around the world behind them anything is possible. In a one-off match Croatia can be a problem for every side in Qatar – they just need some things to go their way.
Possible starting XI for the opening match: Livaković-Juranović-Lovren (Šutalo)-Gvardiol-Sosa-Brozović-Modrić-Kovačić-Perišić-Pašalić-Kramarić
Croatia’s World Cup fixtures (CET time)
23 November: CROATIA v Morocco – Al Bayt Stadium – 11 am
27 November: CROATIA v Canada – Khalifa International Stadium – 5 pm
1 December: CROATIA v Belgium – Ahmad bin Ali Stadium – 4 pm