Despite huffing and puffing their way towards a 1-1 draw against Iceland in their opening match of the FIFA World Cup, Argentina are still widely expected to qualify from Group D. However, in order to do so, they must secure a positive result versus Croatia tomorrow night. Of course, that is much easier said than done. The Balkans do, after all, top the section after a comfortable 2-0 victory over a lacklustre Nigeria side.
Surely La Albiceleste, with all the quality they have at their disposal, will react in Nizhny Novgorod? Given the fact Jorge Sampaoli does not yet know what his best starting XI is, it is far from a given that they will. That said, Vatreni coach Zlatko Dalić must prepare his players to be ready for an onslaught from the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María. On their night, they still have the potential to blow the vast majority of international teams away.
With that in mind, Croatia must be brave with and without the ball. What they cannot afford to do is invite their opponents to attack them and put very little pressure on the ball. That would be asking for trouble and they would inevitably concede a goal before long. Naturally, Dalić will instruct his team to play on the counter-attack, which makes sense considering that Argentina are very much a possession-orientated side.
Indeed, journalist Vjekoslav Paun believes that Dalić will alter his system slightly in order to combat Argentina’s main strengths. Here is what he had to say on the subject, via FIFA’s official website:
“Judging by Croatia’s last few training sessions, coach Zlatko Dalić will be making some changes. After deploying four midfielders against the Nigerians, he is considering whether to field fewer against the Argentinians or to put the emphasis on keeping possession by sending out more creative players. The Vatreni are unlikely, however, to adopt the same defensive strategy pursued by Iceland. Time will tell what approach Dalić decides to take.”
From Paun’s analysis, it is safe to assume that Croatia will not sit anywhere near as deep as Iceland did on Saturday. Dalić’s best players are, in truth, his front six and he is faced with no other option but to take advantage of this. The likes of Ivan Perišić, Mario Mandžukić and Andrej Kramarić must be licking their lips at the prospect of coming up against a defensive rearguard which looks far from comfortable playing together as a unit.
It should be remembered that Argentina only just managed to reach the tournament in the first place, having endured a torrid qualification campaign which resulted in highly-regarded tactician Edgardo Bauza losing his job. Despite the arrival of Sampaoli, the Argentine national team is in the midst of a very unstable period in which it has found good results very hard to come by. That must give Dalić’s squad a huge amount of encouragement ahead of tomorrow night’s crunch encounter.
Furthermore, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić will also fancy their chances of winning the midfield battle as they pit their wits against Javier Mascherano, now plying his trade for Chinese Super League side Hebei China Fortune, and Lucas Biglia, who endured a tough debut season with Serie A giants AC Milan. If Dalić can find a way in which to keep those two quiet, then he will have also gone a long way towards cutting the supply chain to Lionel Messi. It cannot be overstated how important that will be to his team’s hopes.
According to Argentine journalist Diego Zandrino, Sampaoli is likely to make several changes to his starting line-up, meaning that Croatia will have to be ready to adapt their game:
“Desperate for the win that will keep his side’s fate in their own hands, Sampaoli is set to ring the changes, both in terms of tactics and personnel. His aim is to fashion a starting line-up that remains competitive but which can also play better football and penetrate the opposition defence down the flanks. Speed of response and the ability to keep their shape will also be crucial for the Argentinians at the back, as will the need to sharpen their finishing.”
Bravery is crucial for Croatia tomorrow. They must believe that they have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with Argentina’s star-studded selection of players. For the vast majority of their key players, this will be the last chance they get to emulate the class of ’98 and reach the latter stages of a major tournament. There is no doubt they have the quality to do so, but do they have the belief? Tomorrow night will tell us everything about whether they have the stomach for the fight.
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