For months now, Belgium and Colombia have been on almost everyone’s lips when the subject of World Cup dark horses has been raised. So much so, in fact, that these two teams can’t even be considered dark horses anymore. They are now outside favourites: well-established football powers in the eyes of spectators with certain expectations imposed on them.
It’s time to find a new unlikely candidate to spoil the party for football’s big guns—and once you think about it, Croatia has a pretty strong claim to the position.
Last year, most people probably would have laughed off a suggestion that the Vatreni could make a deep run in Brazil, as the team limped through qualifiers and looked further past their peak with every game. Though they had some talented players, the boys in chequered shirts appeared ineffective up front and leaky at the back, with their tactical plan becoming increasingly incoherent.
But things have changed.
The arrival of Niko Kovac, Croatia’s former captain who replaced Igor Stimac at the helm of the national team, brought a sea change of atmosphere in and around the team. In one stroke, it injected the players, many of them Kovac’s former team-mates, with a much-needed dose of confidence and cleared up any lingering uncertainty about how they are expected to play.
Of course, it’s far too early to tell how much the new gaffer can improve the team by the World Cup, as Croatia only played two competitive games against Iceland and one friendly with Switzerland under his guidance. But early signs are encouraging. Unlike his predecessor, Kovac has a plan and intends to stick to it. Right from the start, he has been adamant about playing in the 4-2-3-1 formation, insisting that it’s ideal for the players at his disposal.
Kovac also recognized the potential of combining the playmaking roles of his two best players, Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic, to create synergy in midfield and render Croatia’s build-up play much more versatile and unpredictable. It is the same intriguing possibility reportedly noticed at the Bernabeu (per Marca’s Fede Quintero), where they are rumoured to be in the market for Rakitic and want to pair him with Modric in their central midfield.
Croatia's manager is also looking into the possibility of enhancing his team's creative core, adding young Inter Milan midfielder Mateo Kovacic into the mix and fielding a team with no destroyer-type to shield the defence. Another option is to play Kovacic in the wide position, where he could act as an auxiliary playmaker.
If nothing else, Croatia promise to be at least fun to watch at the World Cup.
There are, however, a few more reasons to believe they could click in Brazil and surprise everyone. For one, all of the players expected to be in the starting XI or near it played more or less regularly for their clubs and several hit a very good patch of form late in the season.
Stipe Pletikosa, the reliable if unspectacular veteran goalkeeper who has amassed 109 caps in 15 years for the team, became a hero of the penalty shootout in the Russian Cup final, winning FC Rostov their first trophy ever. He’s still first choice for Croatia, despite Danijel Subasic's strong performance at Monaco.
Vedran Corluka really improved recently for Lokomotiv Moscow—though he's now a full-fledged centre-back rather than full-back, he’s playing close to the level seen in his best days at Spurs. Dejan Lovren is one of the most sought-after defenders in the Premier League, after a great debut year with Southampton.
Danijel Pranjic and Ivan Strinic, candidates for the left-back position, have both done reasonably well for their clubs (Panathinaikos and Dnipro, respectively).
Darijo Srna and Eduardo (both of Shakhtar Donetsk), as well as Ivan Perisic and Ivica Olic (both of Wolfsburg), all ended the season on a high note.
Mario Mandzukic will be a star of this summer’s transfer market and even the 20-year-old left winger Ante Rebic finally got to play for Fiorentina in the last round of Serie A, immediately scoring an important goal with a routine beyond his age. There’s also Niko Kranjcar, showing glimpses of his technical genius for Queens Park Rangers.
What’s more, all of them are fully fit and injury-free, although Rakitic (and possibly Modric) could be a little fatigued after long and successful seasons—but Kovac planned ahead.
Back in December, he teamed up with sports scientists to design a series of extensive medical and biomechanical tests, which all of the candidates for his squad were required to take. The main objective was to assess the state of each player’s muscle mass in order to find out what kind and amount of stress (or lack thereof) is most beneficial for each of them and devise individually tailored training programmes.
At the moment, the squad appears to be in excellent shape. It’s brimming with in-form players who are full of confidence and led by a young, dynamic manager who knows them inside out as their former team-mate and leader on the pitch.
There are a few problems, of course, like the worrisome lack of pace on the flanks, the lack of muscle in midfield and the mechanisms of their transition, which have yet to be fully established. But this team should be a whole different animal than the one that struggled in the qualifiers. If Kovac succeeds in making it more than the sum of its parts, it could prove a hit in Brazil.
But what would constitute success for Croatia at the World Cup?
Most fans would agree that advancing past the group stage is a realistic aim, and anything beyond that is not even being discussed yet. Croatia are in a tricky group and play their first match against Brazil in the tournament opener, where the hosts will be under immense pressure. That game will definitely set the tone for Kovac’s team and show them where they stand.
They will be underdogs, but a good performance there would give them an enormous boost in confidence—perhaps even if they lose but play well in the process. If they get thrashed, it will certainly be very difficult to raise the players' spirits ahead of clashes with two other teams in Group A—though neither Cameroon nor Mexico are better than Croatia.
Three weeks before the World Cup, the "what-ifs" are still abundant and it’s hard to say whether the team will click together or not. If they do, they will really have a chance against anyone. Like former Croatia manager Slaven Bilic said ahead of the 2012 Euros, per The Guardian: "I know the character of this team—when we take off, it’s an explosion."