Twenty years since their debut appearance as an independent nation, Croatia have become a fixture at the European Championship: Euro 2000 was the only one they’ve missed. Having Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and more could make them a dark horse to win the tournament, if the atmosphere around them wasn’t at an all-time low.
Many fans are so frustrated with corruption within the federation that they can’t bring themselves to support the team any more. Racist incidents and crowd bans tainted the qualifying campaign, and manager Ante Cacic – controversially appointed last autumn as a replacement for Niko Kovac – is widely seen as an inadequate choice.
Will the manager control his dressing room?
Cacic has only been in charge of two competitive games and a few friendlies, but has already managed to fall out with Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren (and isn’t taking him to the Euros) and driven the 100-cap veteran Ivica Olic to international retirement.
His tendency to tinker extensively with tactics has only raised further doubts. In one friendly, Croatia changed from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 within 90 minutes, and the nature of his Plan A is still uncertain. The team’s stars all play under much better and more reputable managers at their respective clubs, so they’re likely to get irritated with these experiments – and once they do, a disaster could be just around the corner.
Cacic doesn’t have someone he can fully trust on the pitch, either. Darijo Srna and Luka Modric are more like elder statesmen than true leaders – and even if they were the latter, they wouldn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with the gaffer. They, too, have been influenced by all the negativity surrounding the team.
What they’ve learned
Cacic has learned – or needs to learn – to select the players who are best for the team, not the ones who are ‘supposed’ to start.
Croatia have been very patient with Juventus workhorse Mario Mandzukic, who scored just one of their 20 qualifying goals, while Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinic and Hoffenheim’s Andrej Kramaric proved they are not only suitable alternatives, but more suited to the team’s style. Meanwhile, Sime Vrsaljko has showed at Sassuolo that he’s currently a better pick than captain Srna, and Mateo Kovacic just doesn’t warrant a place in the starting line-up, even if he does wear a Real Madrid shirt.
Where Madrid meets Barcelona
The Clasico playmaker axis of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic is the foundation of their strength, complemented with the iron lungs of Inter’s box-to-box carrier Marcelo Brozovic.
When it works, Croatia look fully in control and dominant, arriving in the final third with five or six players, all capable of shooting from every possible position and angle. They’ve also been known to press intensely around their own box, not allowing opponents space or time on the ball.
Modric and Rakitic can quickly restart attacks with long passes to wingers Ivan Perisic and Marko Pjaca, who both cut inside and can beat anybody one-on-one.
Please protect Luka
The Vatreni are vulnerable on both defensive flanks and their centre-backs aren’t the fastest around, which makes playing in a high line very risky.
The lack of an aggressive ball-winner in midfield means opponents often look to apply intense pressure on Modric, blocking his ball distribution and forcing him to withdraw into very deep positions, which slows the play and very much limits his forward surges with the ball at his feet. It’s in those situations that Croatia can look unable to assert themselves in midfield or create space, which results in plenty of lost balls and quick breaks for the opposition.
Modric is, without doubt, central to Croatia’s chances. He bosses the midfield, wins balls, retains possession under pressure and organises play from as deep as the edge of his own box if needed – and often it is, because the team doesn’t have a ‘proper’ holding midfielder to provide a safety net for the playmakers.
However, Inter’s Perisic has been Croatia’s best and most reliable performer ever since the 2014 World Cup. His impressive displays in Brazil were a silver lining for what was ultimately a competitive failure (the team lost to the hosts and Mexico in being knocked out in the group stage). He also scored six goals in the qualifiers and consistently played at a high level, even when others didn’t.
The underestimated winger, now at Inter after episodes with Club Brugge, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg, has long been drawing attention of several English clubs. He could be one of the tournament’s unlikely stars and get himself another big-money transfer on the back of it – fast, agile and skilful, he would be perfect for the Premier League. Croatians hope that Cacic won’t use him as a left-sided wing-back in the 3-5-2 formation he has been toying with.
To say that Cacic, 62, is massively unpopular among fans would be about right: they feel he was appointed as someone the federation bosses can control very easily.
He used to repair TV and radio sets for living, while his biggest coaching gig so far was at Dinamo Zagreb a few years ago – and that ended in a disgraceful exit after his team lost all of their Champions League group games without scoring, among other disappointing results. He doesn’t have proper references for the job and how much respect he commands among players is very questionable.