Fans of the Croatian national team have spent much of the last 20 years pining for a side to do them as proud as the ‘Class of 98’ did at the World Cup in France. Unfortunately for them, no group of players has ever come close to matching the third-place finish earned by Davor Šuker, Zvonimir Boban and their colleagues. Comparisons between Miroslav Blažević’s squad and the Vatreni’s current crop of stars are inevitable, especially now that they have reached the semi-finals where they will face England, another country which has struggled to live up to billing in recent years.
Take the Croatia squad at face value, and you will find players who regularly start for clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, Inter and Monaco among others. Of course, reputation has counted for little so far in Russia, with the likes of Germany, Argentina, Spain, Portugal and Brazil all being knocked out of the competition earlier than most anticipated. However, there is no getting away from the fact that Zlatko Dalić has a wealth of outstanding talent at his disposal and that is something Gareth Southgate should be wary of ahead of tomorrow night’s clash at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Indeed, the aforementioned Southgate has been keen to play down his team’s chances of reaching the final, insisting that his main focus is on bringing continued improvement to the national team set-up: “We are a team who are still improving. We know where we are. We are having success because everybody is working so hard, everybody is working hard on the field. We are in this position because guys that are in the squad like Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Nick Pope, Jack Butland, Danny Rose, the older ones, have been exceptional in their mentality, their attitude to support the team, to train every day.”
Dalić, meanwhile, will be hard at work searching for ways in which to prevent the likes of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling from having as much joy against his defenders as they have done against other teams in the tournament so far. It is likely that he will sacrifice the attacking skills of Hoffenheim forward Andrej Kramarić for either Marcelo Brozović or Milan Badelj, who would offer the team far greater defensive guarantees. The former Al-Ain tactician will already have a starting XI in mind, but may well decide to sleep on one or two less clear cut matters.
In the aftermath of Saturday night’s tense and dramatic victory over Russia on penalties, Dalić was keen to downplay fears that his players could suffer from exhaustion, with both of their knockout ties having gone right to the wire: “Of course there is some power left for the English. We do not want to stop, we will try to play our best game. We have two matches left to play and we are very motivated. We’re giving our all. It will be a battle again but I trust us, I have belief in us. I was concentrated throughout the match but after Rakitić’s penalty, all the emotion came bursting out of me. I don’t cry often but now I have a good cause. Croatia are in the semi-finals. This is a great success and a great result.”
With regard to Croatia’s tactical set-up, they should look to press high whenever Harry McGuire or Kyle Walker are in possession of the ball. Despite being lauded by sections of the English press, both definitely have a mistake in them and this is something that the likes of Ivan Perišić and Mario Mandžukić must be made aware of. In terms of positioning, Ashley Young still cuts an unconvincing figure at left wing-back, so that is another area of the pitch Croatia may choose to exploit, especially since Ante Rebić is enjoying such a hot streak of form.
Dalić and his players will no doubt fancy their chances of taking advantage of the England’s defensive flaws, but they must also be sure to avoid lapses in their own concentration, such as the ones that almost cost them dearly against the host nation. Should they manage to do so, they have a great chance of writing a new chapter of Croatian footballing history, which they ought to grasp with both hands.
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