Although the home fans at this summer’s World Cup opening fixture will hope and expect Croatia to be Brazil’s cannon-fodder on June 12, the eastern European side will have other ideas.
Returning to the competition after missing out in South Africa four years ago, the eastern European nation has a number of top-drawer players sprinkled throughout an able squad.
In a competitive Group A, Croatia have as good a chance as any to make it through the pool and into the business end of the tournament.
With a starting XI possessing attacking intent and quality, the nation’s travelling support will believe that the following contingent will have the required ability to get them through Group A.
Cutting seven from this group will not be an easy task, although it may well be that most of the five uncapped players will end up staying at home.
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subašić (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Lokomotiva).
Defenders: Igor Bubnjić (Udinese), Vedran Ćorluka (Lokomotiv), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Danijel Pranjić (Panathinaikos), Gordon Schildenfeld (Panathinaikos), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar), Ivan Strinic (Dnipro), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kyiv), Šime Vrsaljko (Genoa).
Midfielders: Marcelo Brozović (Dinamo), Milan Badelj (Hamburg), Mateo Kovačić (Inter), Niko Kranjčar (QPR), Ivan Močinić (Rijeka), Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Mario Pašalić (Hadjuk), Ivan Rakitić (Sevilla), Jorge Sammir Cruz Campos (Getafe), Ognjen Vukojević (Dynamo Kyiv)
Disciplinary reasons have robbed the Croats of 105-cap veteran Josip Šimunić, who allegedly made a controversial gesture towards the home faithful in his side’s victory over Iceland in a qualifying play-off fixture. He is serving a ten-match ban as a result.
Given the hype surrounding new Barcelona signing Alen Halilović, it is somewhat surprising that he is not included in the initial list, especially given that despite only being 17 he has already picked up three senior caps.
Former Blackburn Rovers striker Nikola Kalinić misses out to accommodate in-form and uncapped Dinamo Zagreb man Duje Čop, who had a red-hot goalscoring streak in 2013-14.
Since then Igor Štimac has been and gone, with Niko Kovač the man to lead the nation in Brazil.
Formerly the under-21 coach, the 42-year-old had a distinguished playing career but has no previous coaching experience at this level due to his age.
That said, the general consensus over the ambitious coach’s appointment has been relatively positive, with Kovač steering the nation through a potentially tricky play-off against Iceland.
Given the excellent offensive central midfield options at Kovač’s disposal, Croatia will likely line-up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 formation – which can be tweaked depending on the opposition.
The side will look to keep the ball and are patient in their build-up when in possession. If all else fails they have the considerable presence of Mario Mandžukić as an out-ball.
Midfield is the side’s clear strength, with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić forming an exciting partnership in the heart of the team, with Mateo Kovačić also likely to start in the number ten role.
Experienced campaigners Ivica Olić and Ivan Perišić are the frontrunners for the wide positions, while in captain Darijo Srna they have an excellent marauding right-back.
Dejan Lovren will inherit a significant amount of defensive responsibility given Šimunić’s absence.
However, Croatia have included a number of largely untested players from their domestic league to make-up for a clear lack of strength in depth.
Left-back is a real concern for the European nation, while although Rakitić and Modrić will be great in possession, the lack of an enforcer in front of the back four could well be a concern against Brazil.
With Mandžukić suspended for the competition opener, it will be up to forgotten man Eduardo or Nikica Jelavić to lead the line against the odds.
Luka Modrić – Although Rakitić has had an outstanding domestic and European season for Sevilla, Modrić is the heartbeat of Croatia’s play and will need to be at his mercurial best for his nation to progress through the group stages.
Arguably one of the best deep-lying midfielders in the world game, the diminutive schemer’s range of passing and vision is Croatia’s main threat to break down opposition backlines.
Although a player that loves the ball at his feet, Modrić will also be required to work hard off it to make up for the lack of a defensive midfield option.
One to watch
Mateo Kovačić – Although young stars such as Mario Pašalić or Duje Čop have the potential to be revelations, the likelihood of them being given consistent time on the pitch is small.
As such, Kovačić could well be the nation’s wildcard operating from the number ten role.
Mercurial and undoubtedly gifted on the ball, the attacking midfielder moved to join Italian giants Internazionale as a teenager and inherited Wesley Sneijder’s number ten jersey.
A bright start in Serie A suggested that the Nerazzurri had unearthed a real star, but this season his opportunities to play have been slightly limited – and he has suffered a dip in confidence as a result.
If given time and space on the ball, Kovačić is a devastating creative player, but his mindset will play a major role on his performance. Nevertheless, Croatia’s opposition would be wise to deploy a designated holding midfielder to limit his influence.
Group A seems like a case of Brazil and one other; there is no reason why the additional qualifier can’t be Croatia.
Although possessing a handful of top-drawer players, concerns will be raised if Kovač has to use his back-up options, while there is an over-reliance on Mandžukić to deliver goals.
They take on Mexico in the final group game and there is every chance that this could be a winner-takes-all encounter.