Who Are Croatia: Profiling Greece’s Playoff Opponents
AGONAsport’s George Tsitsonis breaks down Greece’s opponents, Croatia, in the European playoffs of World Cup qualifying.
The draw for the European Playoffs for the 2018 FIFA World Cup took place on Tuesday. Greece found out then that their opponents for the November home and away fixtures that will determine whether they go to a third successive World Cup will be Croatia.
Croatia have top-class talent throughout their roster, on an individual level this is a scary-looking side. However, the Vatreni (The Blazers) as they are known, have never been quite able to put it together at the international level despite decades of fantastic individual quality.
The one major exception to that was the 1998 World Cup, when in their first ever appearance, they magnificently finished 3rd.
This qualifying cycle for the 2018 World Cup saw them placed into Group I alongside Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland, and Kosovo. A draw at home to Finland late in the campaign gave Iceland the opening it needed to finish top of the group. Croatia secured their playoff spot with a final matchday victory over Ukraine in Kiev.
The Finland draw saw the Croatian Football Federation make the decision to sack Ante Cacic. Zlatko Dalic was installed less than 48 hours before the do-or-die match against the Ukrainians. The players responded with a superb performance away to keep their World Cup hopes alive.
Croatia would rival even some of Europe’s top sides with regard to individual talent. There is no question about their quality. The real question is whether they can do it as a team. In the past, when the chips are down this is a side that has a tendency to falter, especially in major finals.
Greece will definitely have their hands full, but all the pressure in this match-up will fall upon a Croatian side heavily favored to advance.
FIFA Ranking: 18th
Stadium: Maksimir Stadium (35,123)
5 World Cup Appearances (Best Finish: 3rd, 1998)
5 European Championship Appearances (Best Finish: Quarterfinals 1996, 2008)
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
The former Al-Ain manager was thrust into a difficult spot when offered the job to lead his country. Dalic had less than two days to prepare Croatia for the away tie against Ukraine. However, he was able to pull it off and lead his new team to the playoffs.
The 50-year-old took the Croatia job without a contract in place, agreeing to coach his nation through the playoffs after which he will then sit down to discuss his future in the position.
Dalic has coached in several different countries, most recently in the Middle East. After a few years in Saudi Arabia, he took over Al-Ain from the United Arab Emirates. Dalic remained with the UAE side for nearly three years winning one league title, two domestic cups, along with a runners-up finish in the 2016 AFC Champions’ League.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
A look down through this team’s roster yields a group of players oozing with class. The undisputed star of this side is Luka Modric. The Real Madrid midfielder is central to this team. Modric pulls the strings and is the creative genius behind Croatia’s attack. His midfield partner Ivan Rakitic is no slouch either. The skillful Barcelona man is ever-present in central midfield having appeared for his country 86 times.
Further up the pitch, Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic is a dangerous player on the flanks. He has scored 16 goals for Croatia in 61 appearances. Mario Mandzukic will undoubtedly keep Greek defenders busy over the two legs. The Juventus center forward is a physical presence who provides his team with deadly finishing, both in the air and on the ground. Mandzukic is Croatia’s second all-time leading scorer, with his 30 goals in 80 appearances.
The defense is led by Sime Vrsaljko and Dejan Lovren. The duo controlled a backline that gave up only four goals through 10 qualifying matches. In goal, Daniel Subasic from Monaco provides further confidence as an able custodian.
ROAD TO THE PLAYOFF
Croatia finished 2nd in Group I of the European Qualifiers as Iceland took the top spot and a place in Russia. Croatia controlled their own destiny going into the final two matches, however a disappointing home draw versus Finland allowed Iceland the chance to overtake them on the final day of matches. Croatia faced off against Ukraine knowing they needed a win or a draw away to clinch a playoff berth. They managed a 2-0 victory to book their place in the playoffs.
Croatia started the campaign with a home draw versus Turkey before reeling off four straight wins against Kosovo, Finland, Iceland, and Ukraine. A defeat to Iceland on Matchday 6 was followed up by a narrow win over Kosovo. A defeat in Turkey still saw them on top of the group before the Finland draw.
Croatia scored 15 goals in the qualifiers and conceded only four. Their defensive solidity was a main reason behind their second-placed finish. Besides scoring six against Kosovo away from home, the team did struggle to find the net, scoring more than one goal on only one other occasion, a 2-0 home win against Iceland.
10/9/17 Ukraine-Croatia 0-2 (World Cup Qualifying)
10/6/17 Croatia-Finland 1-1 (World Cup Qualifying)
9/5/17 Turkey-Croatia 1-0 (World Cup Qualifying)
9/3/17 Croatia-Kosovo 1-0 (World Cup Qualifying)
6/11/17 Iceland-Croatia 1-0 (World Cup Qualifying)
PRIOR HISTORY VERSUS GREECE
Greece and Croatia have met on six previous occasions with Greece holding a slight advantage with two wins to Croatia’s one and three matches ending in draws. The two teams first met as part of the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup. In those pair of fixtures, Greece earned a 1-1 draw in Zagreb with Croatia winning the reverse fixture 1-0.
Two friendlies followed for the two sides. Greece won the first at home in 1999, 3-2. Two years later in April 2001, the two teams played out a 2-2 draw in Croatia.
The last time the two countries met was as part of the EURO 2012 qualifiers. A 0-0 draw was the result in Croatia in September 2010. In October 2011, Greece won 2-0 on their way to booking a spot at EURO 2012.