Croatia finished their World Cup qualification campaign in second place behind Belgium in Group A. Losing twice against Scotland and collecting only one point from their last four games, though, hardly inspires confidence. Their manager Igor Stimac promptly left and they go into the World Cup under new boss, Niko Kovac.
Some of you will remember his time and good performances as a defensive midfielder for Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich and one of the most influential Croatian national team players as well as a team captain. He was also well known for his exceptional stamina and perfect execution of tactical tasks. His coaching experience includes two years at Red Bull Salzburg and one year coaching the U-21 Croatian national team before becoming the new Croatia manager. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he changes few players each game since he will practice playing only 100 per cent fit players. At this point no one knows if there will be additional formation and/or tactical changes for the games in the World Cup. But I would like to point out that, since his arrival, in all three games (twice against Iceland in playoffs and a friendly 2-2 draw with Switzerland) under his helm, Croatia played a 4-2-3-1 formation with the same key players as the backbone of the team. Those three matches are the best indicator for predicting the team.
12th of June, opening game against hosts @ Sao Paolo. City resides @760m elevation, with high humidity and high temperature. It will be a very tough game.
18th of June, against Cameroon @ Manaus. Extreme temperatures and extreme humidity will probably not suit anyone. Completely open game.
23rd of June, against Mexico @ Recife. Extreme humidity. Completely open game.
Have in mind the enormous distance between the three cities. A lot of travelling between games and extreme weather conditions might affect players. This is one of the reasons why Kovac hired special condition trainer. The team could be completely exhausted at the end of the group stage and if they come through the group phase it will be very tough against almost anyone (Spain, Netherlands and Chile)
Since Niko Kovac’s playing era, there haven’t been top natural defensive midfielders in Croatian team. There have been many players which were utilized in that position, but none impressed. That could mean that Croatia will probably play without a true defensive midfielder.
FACT: From the preliminary list of players for the World Cup there is only one natural defensive midfield player and it’s Ognjen Vukojevic.
FACT: Recent players played in the defensive midfield position: Modric, Rakitic, Pranjic, and Kovacic.
Modric and Rakitic are key midfield players. They are 100% nailed on. The only drawback is that in 4-2-3-1 formation they will both play somewhat deeper, in the DM position. This tactic has both advantages and disadvantages, but at this point it’s probably a good thing. Both are very agile, and with good reading of the game, they can intercept and tackle well and create counter attacks.
FACT: Modric will play the same position for Croatia as he plays for Real Madrid.
FACT: Rakitic will have a decent share of free kicks and is a designated corner taker.
It seems like Kovac prefers to play Pranjic at left-back. Pranjic is very small player, best utilized as left-winger/left midfielder but also played as defensive midfielder and left-back through his career. Sometimes Pranjic is too weak to handle robust, fast midfielders and forwards but is known for very good and accurate crosses and passing of the ball.
FACT: The only natural left-back in the Croatian team is Ivan Strinic. His recent displays haven’t helped him to earn a place in starting XI but could be given a chance.
Croatia doesn’t have too many options up front. The only real standout is Mandzukic, his displays were among the best and he’s 100% nailed on.
FACT: Mandzukic earned a red card in the last play-off game and will miss the opening game against Brazil.
This will deter many of choosing him for starting lineup, but be aware. His stats and energy will be crucial if Croatia want to grab 2nd place in the group and games against Cameroon and Mexico could be fruitful for him. I have tipped him as the best prospect from the Croatian team last time for Euro 2012, especially as he was classified as a midfielder. This time he will probably be classified as a forward. At this time, no one knows who will replace Mandzukic for the 1st game. Contenders are Jelavic and/or Eduardo.
We also have to pay attention to Ivica Olic. Even though he is 34 years old, his pace/speed is still unmatched by many. Due to lack of technical abilities, this makes him an ideal winger as he can torture full-backs, pushing them for errors which can lead to unexpected chances.
FACT: Olic is integral part of the new tactical formation. He will play as a winger but do not expect crosses from him; he will drift more centrally to open up additional space for Srna/Rakitic behind him. Do not expect much from him, but he could muster the odd goal or assist.
Right-back position is still reserved for team captain Darijo Srna. Very good player overall, but his abilities are fading with years. He can also play as a right winger. 32-year-old Srna is not among the best players anymore. Once a pure dead-ball specialist, he now shares free kicks with Rakitic. Nowadays he is bad at recovering balls and is very emotional player. He still has a decent chance of providing a good cross which could lead to a goal.
FACT: Darijo Srna is team captain and nailed on. Even though at the end of his career, Srna is still the best prospect from Croatia’s defence.
When looking at goalscorers throughout qualifiers and recent friendly matches, many scored, including: Rakitic, Olic, Mandzukic, Srna, Kranjcar, Eduardo, Lovren, Corluka and Jelavic. Since this is good from team perspective, it’s bad for Fantasy players. To sum it up, from each line the best players to choose from Croatia would be: Pletikosa (GK); Srna (DEF), Rakitic (MF) and Mandzukic (FW).
Pletikosa is still the 1st-choice goalie, Subasic should be his sub. Lovren will probably get the nod for starting XI after good performances with Saints. Domagoj Vida and Gordon Schildenfeld should be 2nd-choice center-backs and reserves for the back-line. Both Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic are young players and will get their chance to impress. Niko Kranjcar and Ognjen Vukojevic should be alternatives for them. Eduardo and Jelavic should be reserves for Mandzukic and Olic. With reserve goalkeepers I’ve covered/mentioned a total of 21 players. The last three travelers to Brazil are hard to guess at this point.
Crossed free kicks: Rakitic (maybe Srna/Modric)
Direct free kicks: Srna (maybe Rakitic)
Penalties: probably Srna
Even if some players might switch position, bold ones are 100% nailed on.
At this point no one knows what the formation will look like against Brazil, but this should be preferred formation/selection against Cameroon and Mexico. Keep an eye on friendly games against Mali (31st of May) and Australia (6th of June).
I would like to share my observations on the whole group. To sum it up, the group is tricky and it’s tough to predict what will happen from game to game.
When you take a look at the group, it’s probably clear that five-time WC champions and hosts (read: Brazil) are favorite to win all matches and to top the group. I would completely agree and advise picking players from their team. However, a word of advice is to be careful. Brazil haven’t played a competitive match since 30th of June 2013 (last match of Confederations Cup against Spain). That’s almost a whole year. I guess especially the 1st game for them will be psychologically tough if they do not break the deadlock early. They play two friendly matches against Panama and Serbia prior to the WC. Keep an eye on their forwards.
Croatia had a really unimpressive qualification and were really lucky to get the easiest opponent in the playoffs (Iceland). A managerial change a month before the playoffs also isn’t the best thing to have for good team spirit going into serious competition. Mandzukic’s suspension against Brazil could work out OK, but is also a big hit to the team.
Mexico had similar road to the WC as Croatia did. These were probably their worst qualifiers up to date. In the CONCACAF group, they managed to finish fourth, behind the likes of Honduras, Costa Rica and USA. I’d like to point out that they’ve managed to win only twice, once against both Jamaica and Panama. Afterwards they played additional playoffs against New Zealand and won both games (5-1, 2-4). From May 28th to June 6th they will play four additional friendly matches! Keep an eye on Peralta and Hernandez.
Cameroon saw off Tunisia (4-1 agg.) in the third round of their qualification campaign, but before that they also didn’t have any impressive results. Their Wikipedia page says in the last 21 games they won nine times, draw five times and lost seven times. They scored 17 goals and conceded 19. These statistics would suggest that they have the most porous defense of all teams in the group. From May 26th to June 1st they play three friendly matches, the last one being against Germany. Keep an eye on Eto’o.
The safest route would be to pick players only from Brazil, but do not be too disappointed if they do not score big. Avoid defenders from other teams in the group (take a punt on Srna if you really want to).