Mario Mandžukić is an elite striker: he has nothing to prove


Despite the fact that Croatia reached the knockout stage of this summer’s FIFA World Cup with maximum points, having conceded just one goal in the process, Mario Mandžukić has been subjected to a degree of criticism from his own fans. Indeed, the 32-year-old is yet to open his account in the tournament so far, but that is, quite frankly, besides the point. After all, Mandžukić’s reputation for being one of the best strikers in the world is built on far more than just being a pure goalscorer.

Unsurprisingly, Vatreni coach Zlatko Dalić was quick to defend the Juventus forward, insisting that he has been impressed with his performances overall: “Regardless of whether he scored or not, Mario represents the soul of the Croatian team. He pushes us. He is our first line of defence. I told him on our tour that he was to be a forward, not a winger. He might be missing a goal, but hopefully it can come against Denmark and in the latter stages of the tournament. He means a lot for the whole team and we appreciate that.”

Anyone who watches Mandžukić on a regular basis will realise that Dalić is 100% correct. His work rate is second to none and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the team’s benefit is unwavering. There are also very few players of his calibre who would react the way he did when Massimiliano Allegri asked him to reinvent himself as an inverted left winger in order to accommodate Gonzalo Higuaín as Juve’s main striker. Furthermore, the outstanding way in which he has performed on the left-hand side within Allegri’s 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation is testament to him not only as a footballer, but as a man too.

Having performed at the very highest level for clubs such as Dinamo Zagreb, VfL Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid prior to joining the Bianconeri in 2015, Mandžukić is used to playing under severe pressure and so he will not by phased by the fact Croatia go into tonight’s match against Denmark as favourites to progress to the quarter-finals. A crunch encounter with either Spain or Russia in Sochi on Saturday lies in wait for them. Tonight will be the moment of truth for Mandžukić and several of his teammates who are also nearing the end of their international careers.

While it remains to be seen if Mandžukić can end his ‘barren’ spell in front of goal, one thing is for sure: he will be a crucial part of Croatia’s game plan tonight which is likely to involve a lot of pressing and defending from the front. That is where he truly excels and there is no doubt that, should his country go on to reach the latter stages, his physical presence will become increasingly important against sides who will afford them much less ball possession. Mandžukić knows this is his moment to prove why he is part of an elite band of top strikers in world football – there is no greater stage on which to do it.

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