You’d give Croatia a chance of qualification for the last eight if they didn’t have to face Spain and Italy in their group, but unfortunately for them they do.
Any team with Luka Modric in it is sure to be high on style, and throw in his Tottenham team-mate Niko Kranjcar, the Everton forward Nikica Jelavic, Bolton’s frequent goalscorer Ivan Klasnic and the ex-Arsenal man Eduardo and you’ve a team full of flair, power, movement and goals too. Points could be much harder to come by though.
Croatia start their Group C campaign against the Republic of Ireland in Poznan on June 10th (Croatia win 9/4 Coral), and it is safe to say that they are going to have to pick up something given what’s to come.
Slaven Bilic’s side finished second to Greece in qualification before easily swatting aside Turkey in the play-offs, but they’d have wanted to swap places with the Greeks once the draw for the finals was made. Whilst Greece will play Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic in Group A, Croatia have it a lot tougher.
They’ll give it a go though, and might fancy their chances of nicking something from the Italians in their second match in the group in Poznan on June 14th.
A lot will probably depend on how Italy have fared in their own opening match against Spain, but Croatia will go into the match – something of a local derby – determined to pull off a shock (Croatia win 3/1 Boylesports). However, the belief must be that Italy will have enough to pull off the victory (Italy win 6/5 Paddy Power) and those who believe they have would effectively be writing off the Croatians in the process (Croatia not to qualify from the group 1/2 Bluesq).
Given that their final match is against Spain – a Spain who may need a win to secure top spot – then Croatia could be left looking at a less than fruitless group stages (group points: exactly 0 9/1, exactly 1 5/1 Ladbrokes) if the Republic of Ireland impress against them in their opening match, with the strong defensive records of all three of their opponents also something that may need consideration (group stages goals scored: under 3 5/6, over 3 12/5, exactly 3 3/1 Bet Victor).
There is no doubt that Bilic is a talented, charismatic manager – and one who is perhaps destined for a role in the English club game in the future – but the 43-year-old who has now been in his position for six years might find that he’s in over his head here, especially in the final match against Spain in Gdansk on June 18th (Spain win 8/15 Bet Victor).
The likes of Modric, Kranjcar, Jelavic, Klasnic and Eduardo all mentioned above may be Bilic’s most recognisable players, but he’ll also be fielding several younger players still based in the Croatian League who’ll be looking to impress in a bid to move abroad. As well as them, the captain Darijo Srna, Bayern Munich’s Danijel Pranjic and the veteran defender Josip Simunic – the subject of Graham Poll’s 2006 World Cup three card trick – all offer guile and tournament experience.
Sadly for them though they won’t be offering a place in the quarter-finals.
Croatia seem destined to be just another also-ran in Poland and the Ukraine, and whilst the prospect of Italy suffering the kind of embarrassing early exit they produced in the last World Cup must be considered by those who want to give Bilic and his men some hope, they are likely to leave wishing that the draw had been more than a little kinder to them.