The 2014 World Cup once again offered a well-known story for Croatia that, in a way, has become a pattern for the Vatreni.
The team was packed with brilliant individuals, who play for some of the world's biggest clubs, but, at the same time, they hid the gap in quality with their understudies and disguised an imbalance in the team.
As with the World Cups in 2002 and 2006, this resulted in unrealistic expectations of the nation and the team, and—ultimately—ended in tears and disappointment.
But it was no wonder that the Croats believed this generation was capable of being a dark horse at the World Cup.
Niko Kovac took over the team just before the play-offs, following the sacking of Igor Stimac, and changed the perception of the team in the eyes of the public. He restored a winning atmosphere and a sense of pride, which had been lost under Stimac.
Kovac assembled his team around the stars who had two great seasons behind them.
Not favoured by Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich star Mario Mandzukic was still playing on the fringes of the first team, Ivan Rakitic promoted himself as one of the best players in La Liga with Sevilla to spark interest from Barcelona.
In Italy, Mateo Kovacic was an established star at Inter Milan, while long-serving captain Darijo Srna was a leader for the team. But the player expected to be the engine of the team was Luka Modric.
The Real Madrid star is a rare exemplar of creative midfielder of the modern time, with an excellent range of passing and a great work rate.
Modric's contribution is way beyond traditional statistics—only two goals and nine assists for Real Madrid last season underline that—but the player sets the tempo and bosses the midfield.
Former Croatia coach Slaven Bilic believes the Real midfielder improves his national team greatly, as Rob Maul of the Daily Mirror reported.
Bilic was quoted as saying:
Luka is in the same category as Xavi was a few years ago with Barcelona or Andrea Pirlo has been for Italy.
All the players around him gain from his game. He makes them 10 to 20 per cent better than they actually are.
It was natural for Croatia to build their game around such a player, but the things still went wrong for Croatia as Modric produced a modest contribution in all three Group A matches.
The nation expected a lot from the young and inexperienced Kovac, but he made the same moves—or, perhaps, we should call them mistakes—as his predecessor.
For years, Croatia have looked like a team without a proper game plan. Stimac tried a couple of different systems and solutions, but never decided on one.
When Kovac took the team over, it looked like he was the one to stick to 4-2-3-1 and build around it, but he changed his mind in the World Cup and experimented with the team and the system.
This resulted in Croatia leaving the impression of confusion. It seemed that Croatia had neutralised their strongest weapons.
Kovac improvised in the middle, starting all three matches with a different set-up for Modric and Rakitic—his best players—and this ended up in failure.
This generation has failed, but it will have another chance. Kovac will continue his work with this team, and he must be aware that they all need to learn from the mistakes.
The core of the team from Brazil will stay for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, but it needs some changes.
The Vatreni should introduce some fresh legs and thank some veterans, but more than anything else, they have to get rid of unnecessary tactical complications and improvisation. Croatia need to find a distinctive, effective game plan and stick to it.
This is a gifted generation of Croatia players with the potential to do some great things in the future.
In Rakitic and Mandzukic, they have world-class players, while some up-and-coming players offer great hope for the future.
Modric, though, is the best Croatia have, and it is a logical move to continue building the future of this team around him.
But it’s time for the Bernabeu midfielder himself to step up and take the responsibility. Modric must take the leadership and do what he does the best—set the tempo for his generation.
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