Thirteen European teams will play in the World Cup and looking back at the qualifiers, Croatia has arguably played the worst football of the baker’s dozen.
While scrapping through the group stage, the Croatian players often looked like mere shadows of their former selves. Having scored only 12 goals during their 10-game group campaign, with only Greece scoring as few, Igor Štimac ultimately had to pay the steep price of losing his job.
Although play-off victory over Iceland is not to be underestimated, there are plenty of reasons to curb the football enthusiasm from the perspective of Niko Kovač, the new manager.
Firstly, there is the case of Mario Mandžukić – a key player suspended for the first game at the World Cup (having received a red card for his wicked tackle the second play-off game against Iceland), scheduled for a World Cup opener, against the mighty hosts Brazil. A difficult question arises for the team coach: to prepare a new tactics for this one game, one favouring some other player, or to make a simple swap, just replacing a player with another?
To provide a meaningful answer, one must understand the impact Mandžukić has on this team. The Bayern Munich forward scored only four goals in the qualifiers, but his contribution was enormous. Not only did the 27-year-old provide the necessary striking class in those games (or at least parts of games) Croatia did play well, but he was also the driving defensive force, one able to push his team to a high-tempo pressure – something Kovač will most definitely want to see from his squad.
His club record speaks for itself: he is the best scorer of arguably the best team in the world and a rare player, whom even Pep Guardiola is sometimes finding difficult to replace. He is both a fox in the box and a hard-working forward, contributing for his team in many departments. The most important thing is that he is a class act, a top striker and by far the best in this squad.
A look towards his team-mates reveals this: Ivica Olić, Eduardo, Leon Benko and Nikica Jelavić have managed just three goals between them, and now one of them is forced to take the lead role in the attacking formation, regardless of the system itself (Croatia can play both 4-3-3 and 4-4-2).
Olić was once a very good player, having also played for Bayern, but at the age of 34 he has lost some of his speed and a good deal of his stamina. He was never s top finisher like Eduardo, and now he possesses nowhere near the physical power of Mandžukić.
Benko, 30, is a mystery for many, a strong forward and maybe the best in-form attacker at the moment, but can the Croatian forward line really expect to challenge the mighty Brazilian defence with a player only capable of scoring in a mediocre Croatian league?
Then there is Eduardo, once a great prospect, still a wonderful talent. But today he is a player not capable of getting even to the bench of Shakhtar Donetsk, let alone the first team. Jelavić is probably not even in the race, as he has never really played a good game for the national squad. For what is worth – it will probably be Eduardo starting against his homeland, maybe even together with Olić.
But looking at those alternatives, a conclusion is simple: there isn’t a single way of replacing Mandžukić, and Kovač shouldn’t bother with tactics to do so. Creating the proper tactics for games against Mexico and Cameroon will be challenging enough, even with Mandzo in the squad. And in truth, for Croatia’s World Cup campaign, that is the real task.
However, with a simple Group A excluding Brazil, I believe beating Cameroon and Mexico should be routine for a talented side like Croatia and then they should progress to the Round of 16. This will boost hopes in the Croatian camp and then maybe with the likes of a solid defence of Lovren, Rakitic and Modric patrolling, controlling and creating in the midfield to provide for Mandzukic, why should we not expect to see a suprisingly blooming Croatian side in this upcoming World Cup.