Fiorentina starlet Ante Rebic looks set for Brazil, despite barely playing in his debut Serie A season. But if he makes the final cut, will it be just to make up the numbers, or could he have an impact at the World Cup?
Wingers are hard to come by in a nation of midfielders—and Croatia, boasting an ensemble of creative types such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, certainly is one. One possible explanation for that is historical: Up until 2006, the national team played with three at the back, a system that utilizes wing-backs rather than wingers. The same formation (3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2) was dominant in domestic clubs as well.
Slaven Bilic did introduce a flat back four when he was appointed Croatia manager eight years ago, but the preferred formation during his tenure remained 4-4-2/4-1-3-2, with wide players as midfielders. Igor Stimac’s ill-fated reign, which lasted only a year, didn’t do much to change that either.
It’s only now, with new manager Niko Kovac, that Croatia looks set to permanently adopt the 4-2-3-1 shape, where true attacking wingers are a requirement. And yet, only one player in Croatia’s World Cup squad regularly plays on the wing for his club: Wolfsburg’s Ivan Perisic. That means that at least one of the attacking flanks will be occupied by someone who doesn’t normally play there, most likely the veteran striker and Perisic’s club teammate, Ivica Olic.
Unless—and that option might not be as unlikely as it would seem at first glance—Kovac decides to use Ante Rebic.The Croatia boss has previously worked with the 20-year-old in the U21 national team and he sees big potential in him. It’s hard not to, if you’ve ever watched him play. But that’s just the thing, few could have seen him: This season, Rebic only gathered 145 minutes in total for Fiorentina, spread over four Serie A games and one Coppa Italia fixture.
For what it’s worth, he scored one goal apiece in those competitions. He also netted one in his full international debut for Croatia back in August, a friendly match against Liechtenstein: Receiving the ball from Eduardo on the edge of the area, he beautifully curled it into the far side of the net.
More importantly, Niko Kovac used him as a sub in both Croatia’s World Cup playoffs matches against Iceland, and both times, the youngster looked very lively and dangerous.
Equally adept at playing as winger or as centre-forward, Ante Rebic is a rare breed in his country. Strong, fast and furious, his style could be described as a mixture between the legendary Croatia striker Alen Boksic and Cristiano Ronaldo—though, obviously, not (yet) anywhere near that level.
He looks extremely confident, perhaps bordering on hot-headedness, but that also means he isn’t afraid of anything. On his senior debut for RNK Split, he scored a late equalizer in an away match against the domestic powerhouse Dinamo Zagreb—and did so with a routine far beyond his age (he was 17 at the time).
Last summer, he was signed by Fiorentina in a deal worth €4.5 million—the largest transfer fee that any Croatian club apart from Dinamo and Hajduk Split has ever received. In Florence, he was given the No. 9 shirt, previously worn by the Argentinian goal machine Gabriel Batistuta, but injuries hampered his integration into the team, and he received very few chances in that first season.
The fact that he was called up for Croatia after playing so little and not even being fully fit speaks volumes. Niko Kovac will submit his final choice, containing 23 names, after the friendly match against Mali this Saturday. Ante Rebic is likely to be on that list.
What he could offer is verticality and a very strong attacking mentality in one the wide positions, but he could also be a surprise choice for the centre-forward position in the World Cup opener against Brazil, when Croatia’s star striker Mario Mandzukic is unavailable due to a red card suspension. Either way, chances are the world will get to know Ante Rebic this summer.