Going into the World Cup, Niko Kovac’s playmaker line was always going to be Croatia’s weapon of choice.
The manager’s decision to play without a true holding midfielder only highlighted the importance of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic and now the match against Cameroon is their moment of truth: They need to produce what is expected of them or else Croatia could be on their way home.
With everyone expecting Brazil to beat Mexico in the other Group A clash, a lot depends on the Vatreni’s game against the Indomitable Lions. A convincing win should bring them close to reaching the second round, as they would only need one point from their final match against Mexico (provided, of course, that El Tri don’t shock Brazil) to qualify. If they fail, the task is going to be much, much harder.
Croatia will need goals. The return of Mario Mandzukic, Bayern Munich’s star striker who missed the tournament opener due to a one-match suspension, is surely the best news for them at this point.
Kovac is very excited by the prospect of unleashing his most dangerous man onto the Cameroon defence, as Mandzukic is very important to him: He doesn’t just score, but taunts opponents with fierce pressing and unbelievable energy. He’s arguably just as important defensively as he is as the focal point of Croatia’s attack.
But strikers need players behind them who can create chances. Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic certainly can.
They played well against Brazil (Kovacic, perhaps, less so than the others), but weren’t able to assert themselves enough to take control and keep possession in the middle of the park, which was the plan. Had there been a holding midfielder on the team, maybe he could have prevented one or two Brazil goals, but Croatia would then lose on skill and creativity, probably seeing even less of the ball.
Against Cameroon, ball possession in central areas will be imperative. Ahead of the match, Croatia are less worried about their opponent than they are about the climate conditions awaiting them in Manaus. In hot and humid weather, players will tire more easily—and, of course, keeping the ball is much less tiring than chasing it.
As shown in their match against Mexico, Cameroon is a team that lacks a real connection between its defence and attack.
According to Who Scored, Stephane Mbia was their best player on the pitch in that game, providing the most in their link-up play. He had the most passes (38, with 97 percent accuracy) and recorded the most dribbles (three), but provided just one accurate long ball and one key pass. Mbia is someone who is primarily a ball-winner at Sevilla, where he mostly acted as cover for Rakitic this past season.
Modric and Rakitic are much more proactive. Against Brazil, they had 57 and 43 passes respectively (per Who Scored) and played 10 accurate long balls together. Modric also had four key passes and five successful dribbles, while Rakitic has contributed more on the defensive end. Kovacic, who played in front of the two, was subbed off early in the second half.
The three-playmaker midfield is expected to start again and strut their stuff across the Arena da Amazonia pitch. Likely subs for the second half are Marcelo Brozovic and Sammir, neither much of a "destroyer" type.
It’s the biggest test to date for both them and their manager, but Kovac is adamant that Croatia’s best chance lies in creation, not destruction.