Photo by: Nir Elias/Reuters
Hampering injuries and a lack of playing time in the EPL have many losing faith in Niko Kranjčar’s ability to start for the Croatian National Team. But, if the past teaches us anything, Kranjčar is poised to have a huge showing in Euro 2012.
It seems like only yesterday that Harry Redknapp brought over the young Croatian talent to join his fellow countrymen at Tottenham. Before joining the Crottenham squad, Kranjčar was the creative dynamo at a beleaguered Portsmouth side that was going through the ebb and flow of new ownership and major changes to their roster. It was not until the 2007/2008 season that Kranjčar displayed his worth, by leading the Pompeys to their first FA CUP victory since 1939. Kranjčar was never a premier scorer, recording only nine goals in 83 appearances, but his ability to create space and deft passing ability is what helped Pompey take the trophy.
He had proven himself in the EPL but Kranjčar still needed to convince the Croatian fan base that he could make a difference in a major tournament. With his father now out as manager, many were anxious to see how he would fair in Slaven Bilić’s system. Without missing a step, Niko shined in his midfield role alongside the likes of Luka Modrić, Darijo Srna, Milan Rapaic and a few other aging midfielders. Against England, Kranjčar solidified his spot by providing constant pressure to the Lions back four, registering a handful of close calls against the English keeper and scoring first in their second victory. He kept his solid performance up throughout the European Championship, until they eventually fell to the Turks in a shootout.
After their staggering defeat in 2008, the team was visibly shaken. The 15 minutes of fame was up for the young Croatian, as his international woes meshed with his club woes. The Pompeys were facing a terrible 2008/2009 season and the Vatreni weren’t fairing much better with a loss to England and tie against Ukraine in which Kranjčar did not play. In February 2009, things got worse as Niko publicly asked to leave a soon-to-be relegated Portsmouth side. With the end of a season and a long layoff, the midfielder was finally picked up by Tottenham just days before Croatia’s disastrous 5-1 defeat to England. After putting in his time, Kranjčar got the start for the Spurs as they crushed Burnley 5-0. In his next few starts, he posted two assists and one goal, helping Spurs to a three-game win streak. As the season progressed, Kranjčar seemed to be the magic man for the Spurs posing a constant threat to opposing defenses through spot kicks and beautifully threaded passes to his speedy forwards. Filling the role of an injured Luka Modrić, Kranjčar was the savior for Croatia in a last minute win against Kazakhstan and a facilitator in their 5-0 trouncing of Liechtenstein. Kranjčar ended the 2009/2010 season with a winning goal against Belgium for the Vatreni and a valuable player in the Spurs squad.
With the long break, Kranjčar came back in the 2010/2011 to see that his football honeymoon was over. Kranjčar had lost his solidified starting role at Spurs to Gareth Bale and his misfortune was carrying over to the national side. With a quiet game in a friendly draw to Slovakia, missed opportunities against Latvia and a tie to Greece, things seemed to be slowly slipping for the midfielder. With his opportunities dwindling, Kranjčar needed to somehow show that he was still a worthy midfielder for both club and country. In the coming months, Kranjčar would use that fire to score five goals in three crucial matches for the Vatreni in Euro qualifying. The new year rolled around and Kranjčar was still not seeing much playing time at Spurs. In February, he finally got the nod in late back-to-back appearances in which he scored two game winning goals. In that same two week span, Croatia handily defeated the Czechs in a 4-2 victory.
At this point, the pattern is as clear as day; when Niko is playing consistently at his club, Croatia are winning handily. Along with club performances, Croatia seemed to be at their best with Kranjčar on the left accompanied by Modrić and Srna in midfield and a speedy forward up top. 2011 has been the only year that Croatia has actually seen a drastically better record without Kranjčar in the lineup, but we can all see that this year has been one of the most nerve-racking to watch. Kranjčar is a master of many trades, bringing his dribbling ability to free up space, a foresight that any forward would love to be paired with and a violent strike that can come from anywhere around the box. Many may disagree and still see Kranjčar as a lazy and uninspiring midfielder, but Croatia will undoubtedly face an uphill battle without him in the starting lineup.
* The graph of 2008