With the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil just 78 days away, we take a look at Croatia’s chances of emulating the lofty heights of 1998, when Ćiro Blažević’s side sent the nation into euphoria when it claimed 3rd spot in France in what was Croatia’s first World Cup since its independence…
Current Croatia coach Niko Kovač might be encouraged by the fact that 2014 is already beginning to replicate that golden year of 1998. Kovač, who took over the helm after Igor Štimac was sacked after consecutive losses to Belgium and Scotland, was forced to beat Iceland in the home and away playoff matches after finishing second in their qualifying group, just as Blažević’s side had to do against Ukraine in the playoffs to qualify for France 1998. The similarities don’t stop there either, Croatian Football Federation President Davor Šuker, who was the Golden Boot at France 1998, has secured a friendly match with Australia just before the finals in Brazil, the same side Croatia thrashed 7-0 in their warm-up match before the World Cup in France. However, it is clear that it is going to take more than omen’s to be just as successful in 2014.
So, how serious can Kovač’s side be taken at this summer’s finals in Brazil? Well, not very, according to www.acttab.com.au, who have priced Croatia at $201.00 to go all the way. The wildcard Goran Ivanišević had not been given a show before he went on to winning Wimbledon in 2001, but can this Croatian side cause as big an upset as Ivanišević?
Much of Croatia’s chances in Brazil will depend on the form of its key trio – Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić, Seville’s Ivan Rakitić and Bayern Munich’s Mario Manđžukić. Modrić in particular will be vital to Croatia’s chances, with Croatia struggling to look threatening during qualifying when Modrić has gone ‘missing’, as much of their play revolves around the midfield maestro. Croatia also will be without a suspended Manđžukić for the opener against Brazil, but it is the loss of veteran defender Josip Šimunić through suspension for the entire tournament that has provided Kovač with a defensive headache. Southampton’s Dejan Lovren has been exposed when he has filed in at the back, making crucial defensive mistakes in Croatia’s losses to Belgium and Scotland, and its Croatia’s frailty at the back which may prove to be its downfall in Brazil.
There is no doubting the potential talent of Croatia’s midfield, with Modrić, Rakitić and Inter MIlan’s Mateo Kovačić the closest Croatia has come to replicating the successful France 1998 midfield trio of Zvonimir Boban, Aljoša Asanović and Robert Prosinečki, but the extra yard of pace down the flanks required in modern day football to break down quality sides might also hinder Croatia’s chances. In striker Mario Manđžukić, Croatia have a true goal scorer, the current Bundesliga top scorer has been scoring for fun this season, but his effectiveness in Brazil will much depend on if he can receive the same service that he has been receiving at Bayern Munich this season from Modrić, Rakitić and Co.
Drawn against hosts Brazil, who are strong favourites to win what would be their sixth World Cup title, in the opening match of the tournament, Croatia have a dream draw from a publicity point of view, and a good result could give them the momentum they need to progress through the group. According to the British bookmaker William Hill – http://static.williamhill.com/world-cup-2014/betting/ , odds favour Brazil (1/4) to win against Croatia (11/2) to qualify for the second round.
As Ivanišević and many Croatian sporting teams have proved in the past, momentum and confidence can do wonders for the Croatian mindset and anything is possible, but this year could possibly be the strongest World Cup to date with a number of serious contenders. Argentina, led by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the ever reliable Germany and Vicente del Bosque’s Spain are all to be reckoned with. Outside of the top 4, who else could be the dark horses in Brazil? Marc Wilmots’ Belgium side, with the likes of Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke could be worth looking out for, as too the likes of Columbia and Uruguay. And we have not even mentioned Italy, Portgual, France, Holland or England.