After a nearly disastrous ending to its qualifying campaign, Croatia is back on track and is hoping to make a strong impact at Euro 2016. However, with a recently appointed coach and an incredibly difficult group, this will be a massive undertaking for the Blazers.
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Hajduk Split), Ivan Vargic (Rijeka).
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Sassuolo), Gordon Schildenfeld (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Strinic (Napoli), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marko Rog (Dinamo Zagreb) Ante Coric (Dinamo Zagreb).
Forwards:Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Nikola Kalinic (Fiorentina), Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb), Duje Cop (Dinamo Zagreb), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim).
The appointment of 62-year-old Ante Cacic was a surprise, to say the least. He replaced Niko Kovac in September after Croatia earned just one point against Norway and Azerbaijan in qualifying. Cacic was able to right the ship as the Croatians won their final two qualifiers to clinch its spot in France this summer.
4-2-3-1 – (GK) Subasic – (D) Vrsaljko, Vida, Corluka, Srna – (DM) Brozovic, Modric – (AM) Pjaca, Rakitic, Perisic – (F) Mandzukic
MORE ON EURO 2016: Sportsnet has you covered with in-depth coverage of Euro 2016 in France, which runs from June 10 to July 10.
GROUP D SCHEDULE
June 12: vs. Turkey in Paris
June 17: vs. Czech Republic in Saint-Etienne
June 21: vs. Spain in Bordeaux
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Croatia was in dire straits with two games left. It was in third place, Kovac was given his pink slip, Cacic had a huge task on his hands and it was more than likely that the Croatians would miss out on Euro 2016. However, victories over Bulgaria and Malta lifted the Balkans into second, which secured a spot in France.
Croatia’s midfield has always been its strongest quality. If Cacic ends up using the predicted formation, he still has Mateo Kovacic, Alen Halilovic and Milan Badelj on the bench. The former two offer creativity and the latter can provide defensive solidity. The Croatians also have two excellent full backs in Sime Vrsaljko and Darijo Srna, who will be influential on both sides of the ball.
Centre back is a big concern for Croatia. Dejan Lovren was not called up, so Domagoj Vida and Vedran Corluka could be the potential pairing. Considering technical sides such as Spain and Turkey are in the Croatians’ group, this could spell trouble in the early stages of the tournament.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Darijo Srna: Srna is Croatia’s most-capped player in the country’s history with 129 appearances. He has played in more than 300 league games for Shakhtar Donetsk and captains both teams. The right back still has the endurance to contribute in the final third while still maintaining his defensive responsibilities, even at 34 years old.
Luka Modric: The Real Madrid star rightfully comes to mind when mentioning Croatian midfielders. Much like every other tournament, Modric will be crucial to Croatia’s chances. The 30-year-old is the glue that holds the team together. He is usually the first player to receive the ball, then kick-starts the attack.
Mario Mandzukic: Mandzukic finished the Serie A season with four goals in his final seven games for Juventus. However, the 30-year-old forward offers more than just scoring. He works tirelessly to press the opposing defence, which causes turnovers and leads to chances. Since teams such as Spain and Turkey love to hold onto the ball, closing down the opposition’s back line will be imperative when they have possession.
How will the defence cope? The centre back position is usually a worry for Croatia. Seeing as how Spain and Turkey will try to unlock the back line with quick, intricate passing and movement, the defenders need to quickly close down space so that the forwards can’t make darting runs into the penalty area.
PROSPECTS IN FRANCE
Croatia should still qualify for the knockout stage as a runner-up. It avoids Spain until the final match of the group stage so if it can claim at least four points, it could be enough to progress. If the Croatians finish second, they’d likely draw Belgium in the round of 16. It would be a difficult game, but if it can shut down the Spanish and Turks, the Blazers can do the same to the Belgians.
HAVE YOUR SAY
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop, John Molinaro and James Sharman) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.