After a failure at the World Cup, Croatia received an infusion of new blood as they are about to start their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. But will the host of new faces mean something real or merely cosmetic changes in the team?
Ognjen Vukojevic was the first to go. The always reliable (within his capabilities), but constantly underrated holder said goodbye to the national team very soon after the tournament ended.
His close friend, the Brazilian-born forward Eduardo, didn’t even return from his original homeland. He stayed there and signed for Flamengo, a club boasting 40 million supporters, scoring three goals in his five appearances so far—all of which have been off the bench. Eduardo resented Kovac the most for not playing him in the tournament opener against the hosts, which had been his dream.
Then there was Stipe Pletikosa, Croatia’s No. 1 for the better part of the last 15 years, who amassed 114 caps. He just felt he was past his peak.
Some also expected Ivica Olic, 34, and captain Darijo Srna, 32, to retire internationally as well, but they didn’t. Both have made themselves available to Kovac again, at least until further notice.
Several new players were called up (full list here, via Croatian Football Federation's official website) for a friendly match with Cyprus (Thursday, September 4) and the Euro 2016 qualifier against Malta (Tuesday, September 9). Will they get their chance, though?
Pletikosa’s successor in goal has been known for a long time. It’s Monaco’s Danijel Subasic, who is already 29, but only has six caps to his name. He has stayed in the shadows long enough—perhaps too long, as many felt he was better than Pletikosa and should have been first choice in Brazil.
In defence, Kovac called up two left-backs, after having none at his disposal at the World Cup, improvising with Panathinaikos midfielder Danijel Pranjic and Sassuolo’s right-back Sime Vrsaljko. Dnipro’s Ivan Strinic, whose injury prevented him from going to Brazil, is really not anything special, but he can do the job. Hrvoje Milic, of the Russian side Rostov, is not too bad, either.
No changes are expected in the rest of the back four. Shakhtar Donetsk’s Darijo Srna will stay as right-back, while Lokomotiv Moscow’s Vedran Corluka and Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren should make up the centre-back pairing.
However, the very promising and versatile Tin Jedvaj is called up for the first time. He can play as centre-back, full-back or defensive midfielder and has started the season very well at Bayer Leverkusen, transferring there on loan from Roma, where he didn’t manage to break into the team. He’s just 18 and could very much become a true star soon.
Despite severe criticism he received in domestic media for playing Ivan Rakitic in the deepest midfield position at the World Cup, Kovac seems adamant to continue doing so. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Internazionale’s Mateo Kovacic are expected in the middle of the park alongside the new Barcelona star, and perhaps the biggest surprise on the manager’s list was the absence of Milan Badelj, who recently left HSV to join Fiorentina.
Alen Halilovic, now at Barcelona B, is with the team again. Having debuted for Croatia in June last year under previous manager Igor Stimac, eight days short of his 17th birthday, the wonderkid now received his first call-up from Kovac.
There’s also Mario Pasalic, 19, who transferred from Hajduk Split to Chelsea this summer and ended up being loaned to Elche in Spain. Dinamo Zagreb’s 21-year-old Marcelo Brozovic already has the experience of playing at the World Cup—and against Brazil, no less. These players are very talented, but it’s hard to see them getting too many chances in such a star-studded midfield, at least for now.
With Wolfsburg’s Ivan Perisic injured and RB Leipzig’s (on loan from Fiorentina) Ante Rebic serving a red-card suspension, Kovac’s options for the winger positions are very limited. Perisic’s team-mate Ivica Olic will probably play on the left again, while the right side is up for grabs, it seems.
Maybe Kovacic could be moved there, with someone else filling in the position behind the striker? Or Halilovic, who is better when fielded centrally, but had often played as right winger? Or Marko Pjaca, the 19-year-old debutant who still isn’t first choice even in Dinamo Zagreb?
There are no such concerns up front, where the new Atletico Madrid man Mario Mandzukic is the undisputed first choice. But two more strikers were called up alongside him, Olic and Hull City’s Nikica Jelavic.
Rijeka’s Andrej Kramaric, 23, and Dinamo’s Duje Cop, 24, are both in great shape, having already scored 11 goals each for their respective clubs this season. But their presence in the team seems more like a reward for their goal-scoring form. Only if they can step up a level, proving themselves among much better players than they have at their clubs, will they become serious options for Kovac.
“Now is the time to change something and give young lads a chance,” Kovac said upon unveiling his list of call-ups. There certainly are some new faces in the team—but with the old ones firmly established, and the manager saying he wants to continue “on the path we have set before,” no major changes are to be expected.