Croatia Preview – Croats To Qualify With Class
World Cup 2014
Many in football circles fancy a highly talented Croatia side to go far in Brazil but a potentially tough second round duel may prove a step too far.
No win in their final four World Cup qualifiers signaled the end for manager Igor Štimac and brought in another Croatian legend in the shape of Niko Kovač. Kovač was able to, just in the nick of time, rally his troops for the two-legged play-off with Iceland and, after a goalless draw in Reykjjavík, secured a place at Brazil 2014 with a 2-0 aggregate victory over the Nordic nation.
That first win in six competitive matches for Croatia means that they arrive in South America with relatively low expectations. However, second spot in Group A, behind Brazil, is very much within their grasp and if they do qualify for the knockout stages and can gather a bit of momentum then they certainly have enough quality to cause some problems for any opponent.
Taking second place in UEFA Group A behind a very good Belgium side was nothing to be ashamed of, but it was the manner in which Croatia stumbled towards the finishing line that raised eyebrows. Fortunately, five wins and one draw – against Belgium – from their opening six matches were enough to set them up for a top-two finish. From games 7-10 they only managed to pick up one more point.
Mario Mandžukić was the top scorer in qualification, netting three in the group stages and one in the play-offs. Only three other players managed to score more than a single goal in the 12 qualifying games played.
Dnipro left-back Ivan Strinic and Hamburg midfielder Ivo Ilicevic both miss out on the World Cup due to respective leg injuries, while Josip Simunic is unavailable after his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against a 10-game ban for making a fascist salute failed.
The opening match against Brazil could set the tone for Croatia’s campaign. If they can sneak a draw, or even give a good account of themselves in a narrow defeat, then the mood in the camp will be positive and they can go into matches against Cameroon then Croatia with optimism. A heavy defeat could have the complete opposite effect for a notoriously fragile team spirit.
As the betting suggests, this really is a toss up between Mexico and Croatia for that second qualifying spot, with both teams priced at Evens to progress to the last 16. But I do feel that Croatia are potentially the stronger of the two and would rather have Kovač’s men carrying my money.
Yet qualification to the last 16 is probably the height of their ambition. Mainly because of the calibre of opponent awaiting them at the first knockout stage. In all likeliness Croatia will be required to play either Spain or Netherlands in the last 16 and the 9/5 about them being eliminated in the second round is a very good value bet.