It goes without saying that Croatia has plenty of experience and talent at their disposal for Euro 2016. Although the Vatreni (the Blazers) are currently outside the top 15 – in fact, they are presently ranked at 27th in the world – Croatia nonetheless boast players like Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Rakitić, Ivan Perišić, and the evergreen skipper Darijo Srna in their ranks.
Three of these men – Mandžukić, Modrić, and Rakitić – have been part of the teams that have won the Champions League dating back to 2013. The vast majority of the core players ply their trades in Europe’s “Big 5” leagues. And although they were deducted a point after someone marked a pitch with an anti-Jewish gesture, they nonetheless secured second spot in their qualifying group behind Italy, with six wins, three draws, and one loss.
Ante Čačić may not have been the first choice in the mind of many Vatreni supporters, but his arrival has paid dividends for Croatia since Niko Kovač’s sacking. The last time they lost a 2-0 result against Norway back on September 6th, and since then, they have won six out of their last seven matches (both competitive and friendlies), whilst keeping clean sheets in five of those.
Although one of those was during a 10-0 hammering of perpetual whipping boys San Marino (which now is Croatia’s biggest win), it nonetheless will leave them feeling pretty good and ready to get down to business in a tough quartet which includes reigning champions Spain, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. Spain and Turkey in particular will be very familiar to Croatian supporters as both sides effectively ended their campaigns in the past two Euro tournaments, and the Vatreni will be hoping to settle a score this time around.
In 2008, Turkey edged them out at the quarter-finals stage during a spot-kick shootout, whilst Jesus Navas’s goal for Spain was the final blow to their hopes of making it out of the group stage four years ago. However, the profligacy of their attackers – with senior strikers Kalinić and Mandžukić only scoring one goal each in qualifying could be a serious cause of concern – although both the Fiorentina and Juventus players grabbed a hat-trick each during the rout of San Marino last week.
In fact, their top goalscorer, who netted six was Perišić, who is primarily used as a winger or attacking midfielder; but despite this Croatia were the highest-scoring and best defensive side in qualifying, with 20 scored and just five conceded. With that in mind, they do have two of the best midfielders in Modrić and Rakitić, with their class in the middle of the park on regular display for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. And Mandžukić did manage to finish as joint top goalscorer at Euro 2012, despite his team failing to clear the group stages.
So, the question is, do Croatia have what it takes to make an impact? Well, football is indeed an unpredictable thing – for instance, no one expected Leicester City to clinch the Premier League title. The first task, obviously would be for them to get out of their group. Should Čačić’s men manage that, then it will all depend on who they face in the first knockout rounds and beyond – after all, no one expected Italy to make an impressive run to the finals in the last edition, but they did. But will this be too tough a task for the Vatreni?