May 30, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
Getting to know… Croatia: Their pedigree as a soccer nation is undoubted as they’ve already made it to the World Cup semifinals despite only being a registered FIFA nation since 1993. At France ’98 a Davor Suker inspired Croatia lost to hosts France in the final four but won plenty of fans. The former Yugoslav nation has only failed to qualify for one World Cup tournament, that was the last time out in South Africa. In their three World Cup appearances they finished third in 1998 but failed to make it out of the group in 2002 and 2006. With a talented squad and a great work ethic, they will be hoping to make it to the last 16, at least.
Record in qualifying: Qualified via the UEFA playoffs after finishing second in Group A of qualifying behind Belgium. Croatia beat Iceland 2-0 over a two legged playoff to qualify for the World Cup, sealing their place with a 2-0 win in Zagreb during the second leg.
What group are they in? Croatia are in Group A along with Brazil, Mexico and Cameroon in a group they will be hoping to make it out of. After Brazil, the hosts are expected to win this group at a canter, Croatia seem to be the next strongest side. However Cameroon and Mexico are no pushovers. The Croats know they are in a scrap for second place but do have the chance to play spoiler in the opening game of the tournament against hosts Brazil.
Game schedule: Group A
12 June, 16:00, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
18 June, 15:00, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia
23 June, 16:00, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico
Star player: Luka Modric
The Real Madrid midfielder is an absolute machine and has had a magnificent season in the engine room. In the UEFA Champions League final Modric was arguably the best player on the pitch as he buzzed around, tackled ferociously, passed with precision and dragged Real back from the dead to win the UCL crown. He runs and runs and runs. Able to let fly from distance and thread balls through to strikers such as Mario Mandzukic, opposition teams will try to man-mark Modric out of the game… good luck!
Manager: Niko Kovac
Taking charge of the playoff games to get Croatia to the World Cup, former national team captain Kovac and his brother Robert steered the Croats to the finals. Igor Stimac was fired acrimoniously by the federation in 2013 but after the Kovac’s (both former Croatian internationals who played at the 2002, 2006 World Cup) worked wonders with Coratia’s U-21 side, they did the same with full national team. Passionate and having a wealth of experience on the international stage, Kovac will use all of that to help Croatia succeed this summer.
Secret weapon: Strong defense.
Even though they struggled through qualifying, Croatia’s man issue was a lack of goals. They didn’t concede more than two goals in any game since qualifying began back in September 2012. With Dejan Lovren having a fine season in the Premier League and veteran Darijo Srna back there, Croatia will be extremely tough to break down. Plus they have Brazilian born forward Eduardo (who used to play for Arsenal) up top to finish off any chances. He will be crucial, especially in the opener vs. his home nation as Mandzukic is suspended.
Prediction: Croatia will get out of Group A but it will not be easy. Their final group game against Mexico is likely to be pivotal as they battle El Tri for second spot. If Croatia can get their spine of experienced players firing, Srna, Modric, Mandzukic, then they have a chance of being a real dark horse in this tournament. They have done it before, why can’t they shock everyone again?
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