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World Cup preview: Croatia

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews Croatia's chances as they bid to get out of the group stages for the first time since 1998.

Croatia have become a fixture of the World Cup since the breakup of Yugoslavia, and they will again be fancied as dark horses to progress far in the tournament this summer.

Boasting a squad with key players from some of Europe's top teams, Croatia have underachieved since their third-placed finish in 1998, and Russia 2018 could be the final chance for their golden generation to shine.

The Croatian team line up ahead of their international friendly with Brazil at Anfield on June 3, 2018© Reuters

With the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic now all in their 30s, time is running out for them to enjoy success on the biggest stage in football.

Here, Sports Mole previews Croatia's chances of fulfilling their potential in Russia.


GROUP

Croatia should be fairly content with the draw having been put alongside 2014 runners-up Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria in Group D.

World Cup Group D

Argentina, with all of their attacking prowess, will be favourites to top the group, but their shaky qualifying campaign suggests that they could be there for the taking and Croatia are next in line in terms of favourites.

Iceland impressed at Euro 2016 and Nigeria went through their qualifying campaign without losing a single game, but on paper Croatia look strong enough to at least claim one of the top two spots in the group.

CROATIA FIXTURES

June 16: Croatia vs. Nigeria (8pm, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad)
June 21: Argentina vs. Croatia (7pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod)
June 26: Iceland vs. Croatia (7pm, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Croatia and Iceland will be well acquainted with each other having also been in the same qualifying group, when Iceland actually finished above Zlatko Dalic's side to claim the only automatic qualifying spot.

Croatia were also drawn alongside Ukraine and Turkey in one of the more evenly-matched groups from the European section, and it was a 2-0 triumph over Ukraine on the final matchday which ultimately wrapped up second place for Croatia.

The Croatia players celebrate after securing their place at the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Defeats to Iceland and Turkey during their campaign left them in a three-way battle for top spot going into that final match, with only two points separating the top three teams and Turkey still in with an outside chance of nicking a playoff spot too.

However, Croatia did enough to book a playoff showdown with Greece, which they essentially wrapped up after the first leg courtesy of a 4-1 victory in Zagreb - all the goals coming in the opening 50 minutes.

The return fixture in Athens saw just one shot on target as Greece never looked like mounting a comeback during the goalless draw, which was enough to confirm Croatia's place in Russia.


RECENT FORM

It has been a mixed bag for Croatia in the build-up to this summer's tournament, alternating between defeats and victories in their four matches since booking their place in Russia.

A trip to the United States in March began with defeat to Peru, but they bounced back from that with a 1-0 win over Mexico in Texas just four days later.

Croatian players Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic in action during the international friendly with Senegal on June 8, 2018© Reuters

Anfield then hosted their first post-season warm-up game when they were second-best in a 2-0 defeat to Brazil, but they again responded to the defeat with victory, this time coming from behind to beat Senegal 2-1 in Osijek.

Consistency has been a problem for a while now, though, with seven wins, seven defeats and two draws from their 16 outings since the beginning of last year.


SQUAD

Croatia World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Gent), Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb).

Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Ivan Strinic (Milan), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg).

Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka).

Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Nikola Kalinic (AC Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina).


STAR PLAYER - Luka Modric

Croatia midfielder Luka Modric in action during his side's international friendly with Brazil at Wembley on June 3, 2018© Reuters

One thing this Croatia side does not lack is creative talent. Even among their back-ups, the Vatreni boast a number of game-changing options which could stand them in good stead over five weeks in Russia.

Modric is still the main man in that regard, helping to link play and set the tempo for Croatia in much the same way as he does for Real Madrid.

A four-time Champions League winner with Los Blancos, Modric can now consider himself among European football's finest midfielders when he bows out a few years from now.

However, a perjury probe off the field could have a negative impact on the 32-year-old, having faced calls from some sections of the fanbase to relinquish his place in the squad.

The only way to appease supporters, it seems, is to guide Croatia into the last 16 and possibly beyond.


MANAGER - Zlatko Dalic

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic watches on during his side's international friendly with Brazil at Anfield on June 3, 2018© Reuters

The Croatian FA took a risk when sacking Ante Cacic and appointing Zlatko Dalic just days before their final qualifying group game in October 2017, but it is one that has so far paid off.

Needing to avoid defeat in Ukraine just two days after his appointment in order to guarantee a World Cup playoff, Dalic's new side won 2-0 and went on to ease past Greece in the playoffs a month later.

Dalic had spent the previous seven years managing in the Middle East at clubs in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including a spell in charge of Al-Ain when he took them to the AFC Champions League final.

The 51-year-old has also spent time in charge of clubs in Croatia and Albania during his coaching career, while between 2006 and 2011 he juggled club duties with a job as the Croatia Under-21 assistant.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Third place (1998)

Croatia players celebrate after finishing third at the 1998 World Cup© Reuters

Croatia were appearing in their first World Cup in 1998 after achieving independence from Yugoslavia, and they memorably made it all the way to the semi-finals in France.

Led by the tournament's top scorer Davor Suker, Croatia finished second behind Argentina in their group before overcoming Romania in the round of 16.

An incredible 3-0 win over Germany followed in the quarter-finals to set up a semi-final showdown with France, but despite Suker giving Croatia the lead, a rare brace from Lilian Thuram of all players saw the hosts come from behind to win on their way to lifting the trophy.

Croatia went on to beat Netherlands in the third-placed playoff, but since then there has been plenty of disappointment at the World Cup.

Indeed, Croatia have failed to even make it past the group stages in any of their subsequent three tournaments, missing out to Mexico and Italy in 2002, Brazil and Australia in 2006 and Brazil and Mexico four years ago, having failed to qualify for the 2010 edition.

Overall Croatia have played 16 World Cup matches, winning seven, drawing two and losing seven whilst scoring 21 goals and conceding 17.


PREDICTION

Croatia will be fancied by many to qualify from Group D alongside Argentina, but their recent form has been very patchy and we are expecting Nigeria to pip Dalic's side to second place.

VERDICT: Third in Group D

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How far will Croatia go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group Stages
22.2%
Last 16
22.2%
Quarter-finals
22.2%
Semi-finals
11.1%
Runners-up
0.0%
Winners
22.2%
Croatia's Dejan Lovren gestures at the end of the match against Brazil on June 3, 2018
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