Croatia head back to the scene of its greatest football triumph this June…
The man who masterminded Croatian football’s biggest ever achievement – a bronze medal finish at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France – is just one of the many believers who feel the 2016 UEFA European Championship in France this summer will be Croatia’s tournament.
Miroslav “Ćiro” Blažević, the charismatic manager who earned the title “Coach of all Coaches” after his heroics in France 18 years ago, thinks the current squad of ‘superstars’ will explode at the same venue. 81-year-old Blažević, who seems to have worked out a way to stop the aging process, even thinks Croatia could go all the way in France.
“I think this group of superstars will explode and Croatia will win Euro 2016,” Blažević said recently as a guest on a TV talk show.
The tournament in France will be Croatia’s fifth UEFA European Championship appearance since the country became independent in the 1990s. Croatia has only failed to qualify for one tournament, in 2000 in Belgium and Netherlands, and have historically performed well at Euros. Croatia’s best performance at Euros came in 1996 (England) and in 2008 (Austria & Switzerland) when they reached the quarter-finals, losing to Germany and Turkey respectively, and it will be against Turkey who Ante Čačić’s men start the tournament against in France.
Croatia only lost one match in its UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, but it was enough to see coach Niko Kovač sacked. After a strong start to qualifying, which included big wins over Malta, Azerbaijan and Norway, it looked like Kovač and Croatia were going to routinely book their ticket to France. But after back-to-back draws and a loss, question marks were raised over direct qualification, and even more so Kovač’s position at the helm. After a board meeting at Croatian football HQ, it was announced that the former captain would be shown the door.
Kovač’s replacement, experienced former Dinamo Zagreb and Maribor boss Ante Čačić, drew mixed reactions from the media, but Čačić has answered his critics with results on the park. He negotiated wins over Bulgaria and Malta to ensure Croatia qualified directly for France, and has remained unbeaten in 5 games in charge of the side.
If Čačić is to win over the critics completely and enjoy a status in the country more similar to Blažević’s, then he will need his ‘superstars’ to perform for him. With stars playing key roles at the likes Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Juventus, there is no doubt that this Croatian side can match it with any side in the world on the day. But they are still very reliant particularly on Real Madrid midfield maestro Luka Modrić. Modrić is without a doubt the side’s conductor, he dictates a lot of the play, and if he goes missing, as he did in stages at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, then Croatia can look one-dimensional.
Čačić continues to look for the right tactical formation to suit his star-studded midfield of Modrić, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić, and the increasingly impressive Inter Milan duo of Marcelo Brozović and Ivan Perišić.
In the two recent Euro warm-up friendlies Čačić deployed a 3-5-2 and 4-1-4-1 formation. The biggest tactical question for Čačić in France will be his back line. Playing 3 or 4 at the back may depend on the players he has at his disposal.
Croatia have lacked a quality traditional left-back since Robert Jarni from the ’98 generation, and with Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren looking set to miss the tournament after a fall-out with Čačić, an aging Darijo Srna and Dynamo Kiev’s Domagoj Vida possibly playing out of position on the left, Croatia’s defence could potentially be one of its main weaknesses in France. This was highlighted in the side’s last two friendlies against Israel and Hungary, where the back 3 and 4 found themselves in trouble when put under pressure.
One of Croatia’s strengths in France will be that players have hit form at the right time. Striker Mario Mandžukić is scoring goals again and has just won the Scudetto with Juventus, Brozović and Perišić are playing the best football of their career at Inter Milan, and Modrić and Rakitić have both been influencial in Spain.
Another strength could be Croatia’s bench. Young potential game-changers like 21-year-old Real Madrid midfielder Mateo Kovačić and 19-year-old Barcelona loan player Alen Halilović will likely come on late in the match against tiring defences.
Croatia will face Turkey first up at Euro 2016 in Paris on 12 June. The pair have met 6 times with Croatia winning two of them and three draws. Turkey’s only win was the famous quarter-final encounter at Euro 2008.
Croatia then head to Saint-Etienne on 17 June to meet the Czech Republic, a team they have never met in an international competition match. Croatia had the upper hand in the two friendlies they have played, winning both of them.
The final group match for Čačić’s men is against reigning champions Spain in Bordeaux on 21 June. Croatia will be hoping for their second win over Spain in 5 encounters. The last win was back in 1994, although Croatia were unlucky to lose the last time the sides met at Euro 2012.
One of the factors of Croatia’s success in 1998 was the passion and support from the fans. Croatia had just got its independence and the drive and motivation to succeed for the ‘flag’ were there in abundance. With over 10,000 Croatian fans expected at each match, if some of that support from ’98 can be replicated again this year in France then anything is possible.
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