World Cup Preview: Part 19 - Croatia
Steve Beagrie Posted: March 08, 2006 12:03AM
As those who know me are tired of hearing, I think the field for the 2006 World Cup Finals is the best for over twenty years, at least. The reason for this is the emergence of so many new nations as powers and many of them are from Eastern Europe. Croatia are a prime example of this; from a population of less than four and a half million (less than, say, Scotland), they've become a regular and dangerous participant at the major tournaments. It all started before independence was won in 1991. In 1987, a Croat team featuring Prosineki, Stimac, Jarni, Boban and Suker won the World Youth Championship. Nine years later, they made a real impact at the European Championships in England. Eventual winners Germany were lucky to beat them in the quarterfinals. Two years later, they gained revenge at the same stage of the France World Cup, hammering the Germans by three goals. Hosts and winners France beat them in the semis but Croatia defeated Holland to take third place. Putting that in perspective, a small country that had only been officially recognised for seven years had finished third at the World Cup. Davor Suker's seven goals also made him the tournament's top scorer.
Croatia's own Golden Generation began to disintegrate and they missed the 2000 Euro Finals, but they made it to the 2002 World Cup and 2004 European Finals. They're definitely back on track and I can say for certainty, having seen them play Scotland, that the Under-21 side is a bit handy. Croatian players tend to be, like their Balkan rivals, technically proficient and tough and the current vintage are a side to be feared, going into their third consecutive World Cup Finals. Coach ZLATKO KRANJCAR (a former Yugoslav international) has molded a team high on ability into a fierce unit. Many of the Croat side play in Germany's Bundesliga, giving them another advantage. Ranked 20th in the world by FIFA, they did well to top another tough European qualifying group.
Team Played Won Drawn Lost Goal Diff Points
Croatia 10 7 3 0 16 24
Sweden* 10 8 0 2 26 24
Bulgaria 10 4 3 3 0 15
Hungary 10 4 2 4 -1 14
Iceland 10 1 1 8 -13 4
Malta 10 0 3 7 -28 3
*Sweden qualified automatically by virtue of being best European runner-up.
Croatia's two wins over the Swedes (14th) were decisive as far as topping the group was concerned. Both sides had sewn up automatic qualifying early though, thanks to dominating a Bulgarian team (39th) that had made the Euro 2004 Finals. Hungary (70th) may never again be the force they were in the fifties and sixties, but they're a technically proficient and dangerous opponent. Iceland (95th) keep threatening to make a move on the international scene and minnows Malta (119th) were overmatched by everyone else.
Croatia have three good goalkeepers who should all make the final squad. TOMISLAV BUTINA (Club Brugge, Belgium) will probably be first choice. Tall and intimidating, with huge wingspan, he's an intimidating prospect on and off the field. His outspoken views on how former club Dynamo Zagreb were run led to his move to Belgium's Jupiter league. Australian-born JOSEPH DIDULICA (Austria Memphis Vienna, Austria) will go in the squad, assuming his legal troubles are cleared up. The former Ajax goalkeeper was banned for eight matches for assaulting a Rapid Vienna player in his club's derby match and there was talk of a criminal case being put together. The other custodian likely to go to the Finals is former Hajduk Split keeper STIPE PLETIKOSA (Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine). The Croats conceded a miserly five goals in ten qualifying matches and the goalkeeping position is one that they can rely on, thanks to the three players listed above.
The defence is pretty mean as well, in the best Balkan tradition. Croatia usually play a 3-5-2 formation, with wingbacks in midfield. The centre of defence is a murderers row of powerful, aggressive man markers. Former Juventus enforcer IGOR TUDOR (Siena, Italy) is one such player. Injured before the 2002 Finals, he was badly missed. His brutal challenges tend to earn him a lot of suspensions though. DARIO SIMIC (AC Milan, Italy) is a bit cleverer than Tudor. He uses his experience (over seventy caps, rivaling Stimac's record) and keen footballing brain to read the move before piling into his man. Simic is one of the select group of players to have played for both Milan and city rivals Inter. In the middle is one of my favourite defenders ROBERT KOVAC (Juventus). Possibly the best man marker in the world game, the German-born Kovac has Bundesliga experience; with both Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen. He played every minute of Croatia's last two tournaments, which tells you how valued his skills and durability are. The two main reserves at centreback are STJEPAN TOMAS (Galatasaray, Turkey) and JOSIP SIMUNIC (Hertha Berlin, Germany). Tomas is another bruiser; exceptional in the air, he was Tudor's replacement at the 2002 Finals and has experience in Italy from his time with Vicenza and Como, as well as Turkey's Fenerbache. Australian-born Simunic benefited from a spell at their formidable Institute of Sport and is reportedly a transfer target of AC Milan. MARIO TOKIC (Austria Memphis Vienna) is a candidate, as is new cap MARIJAN BULJAT (Dynamo Zagreb).
There are two candidates for the left wingback slot. Veteran ANTHONY SERIC (Panathaniakos, Greece) can play midfield but is more defensively minded and can point to his experiences with five Serie A clubs (Inter, Brescia, Lazio and Verona). His younger rival MARKO BABIC (Bayer Leverkusen, Germany) is full of energy and can counter his youth with the fact that he appeared in a Champions League Final in 2002. The right wingback will probably be DARIJO SRNA (Shakhtar Donetsk), he moved to the Ukraine after being crowned Croat MVP in 2003. His four goals in the qualifying campaign have led to comparisons with David Beckham. Another midfielder who warrants such praise is IVAN LEKO (Club Brugge). Naturally left sided, he's able to move inside one space to accommodate the left wingback. A fabulous passer and dead ball specialist, he's recently returned to the squad after being left out for a couple of years.
The heartbeat of the team is another world class performer. NIKO KOVAC (Hertha Berlin, Germany) is not only Robert's older brother, but one of the best central midfielders in the game. Another Croat born in Germany, the former Hamburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern lynchpin does everything; he has a great touch, passes and tackles well while covering the whole field. Comparing him to the likes of French World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps or Irish star Roy Keane isn't unreasonable. The advanced central midfielder will be NIKO KRANJCAR (Hajduk Split). Yes, he is the coach's son, as well as the only home based player likely to make the first team. He's struggled to live up to the early hype, when he made his club debut at sixteen he was compared to Zinedine Zidane! That said, he's still only twenty one and could well be ready to break out at the Finals.
Most of the main options in reserve are more defensively minded. The most noteworthy is JURICA VRANJES (Werder Bremen, Germany), who can also play as a sweeper. Vranjes is one of the best tacklers around; combining technique, timing and the ability to make his opponents feel like they've been thrown under a train. He'll see plenty of action at the Finals at both positions. JERKO LEKO (Dynamo Kiev, Ukraine) is a more physical man marker, who struggles to avoid bookings and suspensions. A less heralded player is DANIEL PRANJIC (Heerenveen, Holland) who runs all day and is an underrated passer who could make an impact. I'm hoping to see him in action this Friday against Utrecht, before going to the Ajax - PSV match on Saturday.
Yes, I'm going to Amsterdam for the weekend. I may not make it back...
An intriguing midfield option is Brazilian-born DUDU (Dynamo Zagreb), who moved to the club at the age of seventeen. He's eligible as a naturalised Croat and is a great dribbler. He's similar in many ways to Portugal's Deco (another naturalised Brazilian) in that he can add that little bit extra skill and determination to the team. If he's half as successful as Deco, Croatia will have a real find. His club teammate LUKA MODRIC has just been called up for the first time, for the recent friendly with Argentina.
There are five real striking options. First choice is DADO PRSO (Glasgow Rangers, Scotland). Prso played in a Champions League Final for Monaco, but killed any chance of a repeat by going to Rangers. A late bloomer, he hit the headlines when he scored a record four goals in one Champions League match. He scored five times in qualifying and is useful both centrally, as well as when he drifts out to the left. Patient markers (such as Aberdeen captain Russell Anderson) seem to have more success against him than tough tacklers.
Of course, given his employers, I hope he walks in front of a bus and takes a couple of fans with him.
The most interesting partner is probably IVICA OLIC (CSKA Moscow, Russia). Hailed as the New Boksic, after the former star striker, he warrants the compliment. Olic is strong, hard working and quick. Most impressive, however, are his runs in and around the opponent's penalty area, he often finds space where there appeared to be none. Recent injuries have slowed him somewhat, but he should be back to full speed by the summer. Attacking midfielder IVAN BOSNJAK (Dynamo Zagreb) can be used in attack, or as a link up man when only one conventional striker is picked. His energy and versatility merit a place in the squad. German-born IVAN KLASNIC (Werder Bremen) is another class act that's had consistent success in the Bundesliga. Another strong, quick player, he's managed a goal every three international matches, often at vital times. Fans of England's Aston Villa will be astonished to learn that their former player BOSKO BALABAN (Club Brugge) is in great form, and likely to make the squad.
That's a good squad, if not quite on a par with the previous generation. As far as their prospects go, Croatia were dealt a tough draw. Brazil will be favourites to win the group, leaving the Croats to fight it out with Japan and Australia for the second spot. The final match, against the Socceroos, will be the vital match. To be honest, I see both sides are pretty even. Croatia have the advantage of better regular opposition and I think, were they to make the second round, they'd be better equipped than the Aussies to go further. The friendly last week against Argentina, held in Switzerland, was a cracker of a match. Croatia immediately got one ahead, thanks to Klasnic, before the Argentines took over. They scored two to go ahead, three goals in the first six minutes!
Wingback Srna headed home Prso's cross (unsurprisingly, from the left) after the break to equalise and Simic headed an unlikely winner in injury time at the end of the match. Whilst there was an element of complacency from Argentina, the game showed that Croatia are a dangerous opponent for anyone. If they can negotiate the opening group without losing confidence, they can perhaps cause a real shock. The win over Argentina has raised expectations at home, maybe the Croats have it in them to meet those hopes. After all, nobody was ready for them in 1998. This ambitious, reborn, nation have confounded the experts before.
Next week, I'll be taking a break from the World Cup to look at the European Champions League. The quarterfinal lineup, bar one team, will be decided by then. Most of the big name players that are going to Germany have appeared in the Champions League this year, but how many of them will still be in with a chance of the trophy?
NEXT WEEK - CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Steve Beagrie is the resident Football (that's soccer for the yanks) expert here at SFM. Check out his website at SteveBeagrie.com.