For months we wondered how Niko Kovac's Croatia would look at the World Cup. The German-born Croatian coach played hide-and-seek with the Brazilians and the rest of us, keeping his ideas away from the eyes of the public, but at the end showed that, if anything, he has courage. He answered the questions with an open, brave, attractive and attacking set-up that—in the end—was unfortunately not awarded with what would have been a deserved result.
Almost an hour before the match, when the Croatian line-up was announced, many eyebrows were raised. Kovac decided to field the best he has, no matter the fact that his team was lacking a proper holding midfielder. Modric and Rakitic moved deeper, with Kovacic in front of them, forming an excellent midfield triangle.
Kovac knew that there are two ways to compete with this Brazil team. One—the most important one—is discipline at the back, the thing many have praised him for. Also, Dejan Lovren, finally paired with Vedran Corluka, looked good for most of the match, apart from a short period of Brazilian dominance. The other way is to control possession, but the hosts, at least for the most of the match, did not allow them to do that.
However, the Croats looked like the team that knows what they wanted for most of the match, apart from short periods of panic. Their defensive positioning was good enough to prevent Brazil from making too much trouble in the box, while the transformation game was a constant threat to Brazil.
Some say there is no such thing as scoring too early, but Croatia's goal obviously came before even they expected. Croatia wanted to neutralize the opening impact from Brazil, but although they did not fulfill their wishes, they completely controlled the match at its opening. However, as time passed, it looked like they didn’t see the way to keep the lead long enough—Croatia pulled back and left the pitch to the Brazilians, the worst thing that could happen to them.
This match—for the Croats at least—will be one for pub talks for a long time. The brave coach did what not many expected, and his team gave their best, but at the end they failed to achieve what they wanted.
However, this performance should be a boost for Croatia moving forward. With displays like this against Mexico or Cameroon, it is hard to see them missing out on the knockout stages.
"I am proud of my boys," Kovac told Vecernji after the match (translation by the author). "What we agreed in the locker room we did and we were close to surprise. To be honest, have to say that this match, after years of planning, was decided with that controversial penalty and that hurts.
"They did not show the respect for us, and I hope we’ll know how to show respect to the rest of the country."