Croatia vs. Brazil: Key Selection Decisions for Niko Kovac
It seems that the Croatian camp cannot avoid injuries ahead of the World Cup opener against Brazil on Thursday.
The medical staff had further bad news for head coach Niko Kovac on Tuesday, with Ivan Mocinic being ruled out of the upcoming World Cup.
Kovac immediately recalled Hamburg midfielder Milan Badelj, as reported by Sportal, who was on the standby list and has just recovered from a minor injury as well.
However, Mocinic, who plays for HNK Rijeka, was never in contention for the opening match against Brazil, and Kovac has other issues to resolve before the opening game of the tournament.
Kovac has kept his cards close to his chest ahead of the game against the host nation, but here, we will try to explain his key decisions before the Brazil match.
Injury Forces Improvisation at Left-Back
Injuries have been the problem at left-back for Croatia. Kovac had been counting on Ivan Strinic as his first choice, but the Dnipro defender was forced out of the World Cup last month with a ruptured hamstring.
He was replaced by Danijel Pranjic, who is an experienced player but not a natural left-back. However, he has often covered that position in Croatia.
But, in the friendly against Australia last month, Pranjic was withdrawn early in the game with an ankle injury and will miss the opening match of the World Cup.
Kovac has been left with no choice but to improvise, and he is likely to switch Sime Vrsaljko, Croatia's second-choice right-back, to the opposite side of the pitch.
Who Will Partner Vedran Corluka in Central Defence?
Vedran Corluka will definitely take one place in central defence for Croatia against Brazil, but one question remains; will Gordon Schildenfeld or Dejan Lovren partner him?
After Lovren's solid performances in the Premier League for Southampton this season, the answer might seem obvious.
However, Kovac prefers the Panathinaikos defender over the Saints defender.
The Croatia coach believes the Corluka-Schildenfeld axis works best, but much will depend on the fitness of the Panathinaikos man, who has been carrying a minor injury recently.
How to Get the Best out of the Croatia Midfield
Midfield is an area in which the World Cup opener could be decided before it has even started.
The attacking potential of the Croatia midfield is mouthwatering, and Kovac has one of the best in this tournament, with Real Madrid star Luka Modric being the standard-bearer.
Add in the superb Ivan Rakitic and young Mateo Kovacic, and it is a combination for Brazil to worry about.
In possession, this team is capable of great things, but the problem for Kovac could be the defensive role of his central players.
Kovac wants to have all three players on the pitch at the same time, but this creates a sort of unbalance that could be dangerous for his team.
One solution is to play Kovacic as a playmaker (with Ivan Perisic and Ivica Olic on the flanks), while Modric and Rakitic would play deeper.
The other answer would be introducing a holding midfielder in the shape of Ognjen Vukojevic and transforming to 4-1-4-1.
Who Will Take the Place of Mario Mandzukic?
The final Croatian mystery comes upfront. Mario Mandzukic is suspended for the first match after he was sent off against Iceland in the play-offs, and Kovac has to find his replacement.
The problem is the form of the rest of his attackers. Eduardo da Silva was struggling this season at Shakhtar Donetsk, while Nikica Jelavic had to leave Everton in January in search of more playing time at Hull City.
One of those two will probably start, but there is a third solution as well.
The veteran Olic, who covers the area on the right flank, could easily be moved upfront, with his endless running likely to ensure tremendous pressure on the Brazil defence.