What looked like that it could be a pinnacle for this fine generation of the Croatian national team has ended instead in tears.
Croatia are on their way home after impressive Mexico defeated them 3-1 Monday night in Recife.
Once again, when the nation expected the most, the Croats failed to deliver, ending their World Cup in the group stage for the third time in a row.
The Vatreni needed a win over Mexico to reach the knockout stage, and they encouraged themselves in days before the match, but when the decisive moment arrived, they looked bereft of ideas and harmless.
Coach Niko Kovac—who took over the team from Igor Stimac following qualification and just before the play-off with almost no previous experience in coaching at the top level—decided to improvise with his usual 4-2-3-1 system, leaving both Mateo Kovacic and Sammir on the bench.
Kovac restored Vrsaljko to the left-back position and pushed Danijel Pranjic to a sort of holding midfield role.
"We played in 4-1-4-1 for most of the time, because in the previous two matches we had some troubles on the left side. I wanted to unload Olic of any defensive job. Later we tried with Pranjic as a left-back, but that did not give us the result", Kovac told Croatian media after the match.
However, even though Kovac is a favored character in his homeland, it is obvious that the media will not spare him of heavy criticism.
Already, many are questioning his abilities, using his inexperience as an argument. In the first half, Mexico "mortified" the match, aware of the fact that Croatia were the side that had to score.
The Croats did control possession, but they were basically harmless. Despite having Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in the middle and Mario Mandzukic in front of them, Croatia still struggled to create any serious chances in front of Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Modric was almost invisible, and Mandzukic was obviously cut off from the rest of the team, while the role of Rakitic was probably the biggest question mark.
One of the best midfielders in La Liga last season, or at least in outstanding form, Rakitic was depleted with defensive assignments that he couldn't cope with. Croatia did not have the pace or aggression that was desperately needed in this match, and Kovac, at least partly, takes the blame for that.
And if his primary selection proved to be wrong, his reaction in the second half did him no favors. He moved Pranjic to left-back and introduced Internazionale's Mateo Kovacic in the middle, but this brought nothing.
Kovac packed his midfield with creative players, but their performance was anything but creative. Croatia were slow and harmless, and as the time passed, it was obvious that they couldn't cope with the well-organized Mexicans.
What is more, Croatia conceded from set pieces, something that was considered to be their advantage in this match.
Kovac will be the most questioned man in Croatia in the next couple of weeks, with some important questions being raised.
Why did a team with players such as Modric and Rakitic look bereft of ideas? Was playing Rakitic deeper than he was used to just an improvisation that allowed Kovac to play some other midfielders as well?
How is possible that a team with so much attacking potential was not able to create a proper chance for most of the match? And why was the defense so static in the second half?
But the fact is that Kovac isn't the only one to blame. The reality is that the Croats overestimated their own team and raised the bar much higher than was possible to reach.
An easy win over a terrible Cameroon in Manaus disguised most of the issues that this Croatia obviously have.
This team has some brilliant individuals, but that does not give them the balance that is needed at this level of football. Croatia are a limited team, and their going out early in the tournament comes as a logical and realistic result.
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