Can Croatia’s Second Golden Generation in 20 Years Fulfil Their Potential?

  • Croatia possess arguably their strongest squad since 1998, when they reached the World Cup semi-finals
  • They are in the tricky-looking Group D, but on paper should make it through to the last 16
  • Midfield is their obvious strength – with an outstanding trio of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mateo Kovačić

Most probably consider Croatia’s golden generation to have surfaced over the 1990s, specifically at the 1998 World Cup. Back then Davor Suker and co. were less than one half of football away from reaching the final, ultimately losing out to hosts and eventual winners France. Croatian football hasn’t reached such a peak since.

But with the 2018 World Cup just over a week away, the country might have another golden generation ready to shine. Croatia have been handed a tough draw, dropped into a group with Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria, but they should have the quality to make the last 16 of the tournament at the very least – they are priced at 3/1 to reach the quarter-final.

In Luka Modrić, they boast arguably the best central midfielder in the game right now – a key cog of a Real Madrid side that has just won a third Champions League title in as many seasons. Alongside him, Ivan Rakitić will provide thrust and drive. Then there’s Mateo Kovačić, the anchoring midfielder who has also impressed over the past two seasons for Real Madrid. Is there a better midfield trio at the World Cup this summer?

In attack, Croatia can call on Mario Mandžukić, who has been converted into a potent right winger over the past season at Juventus. The towering forward has shown a penchant for the big occasion with two goals against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals this term, as well as that memorable effort against the same opponents in the 2016-17 final. The 32-year-old could be worth a look at when it comes to the Golden Boot – he’s priced at 66/1 to finish as the top scorer in the tournament.

They also have Inter Milan wide man Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić, who netted 13 times in 22 Bundesliga appearances for Hoffenheim last season. In defence, Atletico Madrid right back Šime Vrsaljko and Dejan Lovren, who travels to Russia on the back of making an impressive end to the season with Liverpool, give Croatia presence.

Many of these players are in their peak years and if Croatia are to get the best out of this group, they must grasp their opportunity this summer. Until now, they have underachieved somewhat, only making the round of 16 at the last European Championships and failing to make it out of the group at the 2014 World Cup. More is expected of them this time.

Reaching the semi-finals, as Croatia did at the World Cup 20 years ago, is a big ask – but if they pass the litmus test that the group draw has handed them, Zlatko Dalić’s side could make a run deep into the tournament. It’s possible that they could meet France in the last 16, should they finish behind Argentina in Group D, or if Croatia top their section they could feasibly face Denmark or Peru instead. Make it past that hurdle, then they might come up against Spain or Portugal.

Goals were an issue for them during qualification, netting just 15 times in 10 games, but when it mattered in the play-off against Greece, scoring wasn’t a problem, putting four past them in the first leg. They will have to capture that big game spirit from the very beginning this summer. Their opening group fixture against Nigeria could set the tone for their World Cup campaign. Do that and Croatia’s second golden generation in 20 years could make a real impression in Russia.

 

*Odds were correct at time of publishing the article

Graham Ruthven is a football writer based in Glasgow working for the Guardian, Eurosport, Yahoo, FourFourTwo and others.

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