EVER since a talented Croatian side reached the 1998 World Cup semifinals in their second major tournament as an independent nation, subsequent generations have been under pressure from the country’s fans and media to emulate the feat.
But Croatia have made group-stage exits in all other events expect Euro 2008, when they reached the quarterfinals, and Euro 2016 in which the Balkan nation flattered to deceive.
Having won their preliminary group with impressive performances including a shock 2-1 defeat of Spain, the Croatians crashed out in the last 16 after a 1-0 extra-time loss to eventual champions Portugal.
The bulk of the Euro 2016 squad, led by experienced playmaker Luka Modric, versatile midfielder Ivan Rakitic and towering striker Mario Mandzukic, was kept together to clinch a 2018 World Cup berth after a patchy qualifying campaign.
Having sacked unpopular coach Ante Cacic in the closing stages to make way for Zlatko Dalic when they slipped from first to third in the group, Croatia finished second behind Iceland and entered the playoffs.
They secured their spot in the 32-nation tournament in Russia with a comfortable 4-1 aggregate win over Greece as Dalic reshuffled the pack to ensure Croatia reached their 10th major event since gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
Billed by many of the country’s pundits as the most potent team since the 1998 one, Croatia will again carry the burden of high expectations in a tough Group D including Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.
Iceland are familiar foes as Croatia suffered a 1-0 loss in Reykjavik after a 2-0 home win in qualifying.
Nigeria represent uncharted territory for the Croatians as the two nations have never played each other while group favourites Argentina will be a tall order.
Victory in their opening match against the Nigerians, who reached the knockout stages in 2014, will be essential for Croatia’s hopes before they take on group favourites Argentina.
The final group game is against Iceland and the Croatians will be wary of their rivals’ giant-killing abilities after they knocked out England en route to the Euro 2016 last eight followed by an impressive World Cup qualifying campaign.
Croatia have the potential to go far but are also prone to slip-ups which have proved costly so many times in the past.
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Croatia have qualified for five out of six World Cup tournaments as an independent nation since they broke away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, having missed out only on the 2010 event in South Africa.
Their best result came in their maiden appearance in 1998, when they reached the semifinals and finished third after a 2-1 win over the Netherlands in the playoff. They made group-stage exits in 2002, 2006 and 2014 after talented generations of players failed to live up to expectations.
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
The 51-year-old, Bosnian-born Dalic, who played as a midfielder for many clubs in the former Yugoslavia and Croatia, jumped into the hotseat at the most critical point of Croatia’s turbulent qualifying campaign.
He replaced Ante Cacic, who fell out with the team’s stalwarts and the FA after Croatia slipped from first to third in their group, to clinch a playoff berth with a 2-0 win at Ukraine in the final group match.
Dalic steered Croatia to an impressive 4-1 aggregate win over Greece in the playoffs to cement his position as head coach, having won the plaudits with a brave approach that was often missing under Cacic.
Luka Modric: The 32-year old playmaker is past his prime but is still an indispensable midfield presence for club and country. The tireless and creative Modric has been able to hold down his slot at Real Madrid and Croatia with a wide range of qualities, notably his sublime passing.
Ivan Rakitic: Barcelona’s central midfielder has taken over many of Modric’s attacking duties for Croatia as his immaculate passing and excellent ball control are complemented by an eye for goal and darting runs from deep positions.
The two constitute a powerful engine room which should propel Croatia to the knockout stages of the 32-nation tournament in Russia.
Mario Madzukic: Croatia boast a wealth of talent up front with players such as Nikola Kalinic, Andrej Kramaric and pacy winger Ivan Perisic always attacking threats.
But it is the towering yet skilful hitman Mandzukic who strikes fear into the hearts of defenders with his lethal finishing and ability to create space for his team mates with unselfish play.
The friendly against Brazil in Liverpool on June 3 will be a good barometer of Croatia’s World Cup prospects following a 2-0 win over Peru and 1-0 defeat of Mexico in March friendlies. Those victories came on the back of a 4-1 aggregate playoff qualifying win over Greece following a crunch 2-0 group win at Ukraine which sent the Croatians into the playoffs.
How they qualified
Croatia finished runners-up in a tight qualifying group behind Iceland and ahead of Ukraine and Turkey to clinch a playoff berth. They dismantled Greece with a 4-1 home win followed by a 0-0 draw in Athens to book their World Cup berth.
Croatia are in a fiercely competitive Group D including Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland but should be good enough to reach the last 16 and possibly advance to the tournament’s latter stages.