It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Croatia last qualified from the group stages of a World Cup tournament.
Back then, the 1998 vintage consisted of Davor Suker, Igor Stimac, Slaven Bilic, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and others, and they’d go all the way to the semi-finals before narrowly losing 2-1 to hosts, and eventual winners, France.
Many of their players now ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues, but as a national team collective, it’s taken two decades to see any sort of progress in the biggest tournament of them all.
As was shown against Argentina on Thursday night, Croatia do have quality right across the pitch, but it’s absolutely their two La Liga based midfielders that oil the wheels.
Both Rakitic and Modric got on the scoresheet in that game, the latter thanks to a stunning long-range effort.
However, it’s the work that the pair do off of the ball that is just as essential to their success.
Barcelona’s Rakitic is the more defensive of the two now, a part of the midfield trade he’s learned to hone under Ernesto Valverde and alongside Sergio Busquets.
And yet he still showed on a variety of occasions against La Albiceleste that his bursts forward as a supplementary attacker allowed the Croats to outnumber their opponents in the big moments. Rarely tracked, he often arrives late and to devastating effect.
His industry allows Modric, a rival at club level with Real Madrid, to service his colleagues passes of unerring accuracy. His deft touch and superior level of in-game intelligence, also a feature of his game, were on show as expected on Thursday.
The pair, along with some of their team mates, may be coming to the twilight of their careers, but this tournament has come just at the right time for them.
A wealth of experience in all areas, as well as the confidence with which they are playing at this juncture, makes them genuine contenders to go one better than in 98, and make it all the way to the final.
With no goals conceded and five scored, only hosts Russia have a better (+7) goal difference going into the final group games.
A likelihood of playing Denmark in the Round of 16 certainly won’t faze them, and even if they have to overcome Les Bleus, you wouldn’t bet against them on current form.
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