There were several lingering questions surrounding Croatia going into Euro 2016. Disregard the ongoing turmoil within the federation. Nobody knew what to make of a talented squad that hadn’t played consistently well for a sustainable period of time since 2012. Would Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic finally play well together? Can Mario Mandzukic regain his scoring excellence? Will Darijo Srna be exploited at right back? How will Vedran Corluka play following multiple injuries heading into the tournament? Somehow, Ante Cacic’s name hasn’t been mentioned yet, who is undoubtedly the biggest question mark.
Those questions were answered by one of the best overall team performances in recent history. Croatia’s ball movement was exceptional, particularly in the second half. They were mostly well organized, as star wingers Arda Turan and Hakan Calhanoglu failed to influence the game. Scoring opportunties were being created on a consistent basis. The unforgiving crossbar and multiple alert saves from Volkan Babacan prevented Croatia from extending their lead.
For what many considered to be the best group of the tournament, every win is vital. Combine that with the unflattering memory of Euro 2008 and Sunday’s game felt like a must-win. The new expanded format does eliminate some excitement of the group stage. A loss wouldn’t have decimated Croatia’s hopes of progressing into the knockout stage. They simply would have been under immense pressure against Czech Republic. With a manager lacking big game experience and Spain on the horizon, it would have been an unpleasant situation.
All of those concerns were erased by a sublime display from the entire team. Besides Marcelo Brozovic wasting a few good chances and Milan Badelj struggling in the first half, the team played considerably well as a unit. Luka Modric played with a point to prove from the first minute. By slicing through the Turkish defense and constantly disrupting their attacks, he was all over the field. It was easily his best game for the national team, since his unbelievable performance against Spain in the last European Championship.
Modric earned his reputation as one of the best central midfielders in the world. Following a largely forgettable 2014 World Cup, the midfield maestro didn’t waste time towards making his mark. He was vocal about doing something special at this tournament. On a list of proud achievements, winning La Liga with Real Madrid and doing something special with Croatia are still missing. He orchestrated many attacks to put them into threatening positions. The productive ball movement and constant pressure eventually led to Modric’s marvelous volley. It was a rare moment for such a technical player to attempt an audacious shot. The bold attempt ended up producing a magical moment.
Modric’s fantastic display propelled Croatia, but they were never solely dependent of him. As well as they played during Euro 2012 under Slaven Bilic; Modric was their sole reliable playmaker. Teammates focused on getting him the ball at all costs. While focusing on getting your best player involved is never a bad decision, Italy and Spain eventually recognized their strategy. No other midfielder posed any significant threat. The starting eleven played their hearts out, but lacked overall quality to defeat Europe’s powerhouses.
Overwhelmed young players have emerged into established stars. Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic were both integral figures in Sunday’s victory. Perisic is becoming a terrorizing threat on the left wing, although shifts to right side on occasion. His crossing forced Babacan into making difficult adjustments. Better finishing from Brozovic and Srna would have given him two well-deserved assists. After being inconsistent for the early part of his international career, Perisic has become a significant part of Croatia’s success over the past two years. Aleksandar Holiga of The Guardian wrote an excellent piece about his development as a player.
Rakitic didn’t necessarily have a terrific game. Turkey forced him into giving up possession on a few occasions. When the second half began, the Barcelona star was more involved in a positive manner. His magnificent run dashing past two Turkish players forced a free kick, which resulted in Srna’s thunderous strike hitting the crossbar. He linked up well with Perisic and Srna for the majority of the second half. Many fans have been critical of Rakitic’s underwhelming national team performances. They gave him a standing ovation, when Cacic subbed him out for defensive purposes.
For all of their encouraging efforts, the satisfying win most likely wouldn’t have occurred without Vedran Corluka. The under-appreciated center back produced a commanding performance with six clearances and seven aerial duels won according to Sky Sports. No clearance was bigger than preventing Hakan Balta a clear shooting opportunity in the final minute. Turkey sent a long ball into the box, which was wasn’t initially cleared. As Glenn Hoddle reminded Slaven Bilic on ITV’s post match show, it was looking very reminiscent of Semih Senturk’s last minute goal against Croatia in Euro 2008. Corluka’s brilliantly timed last-ditch tackle ended any chance of another colossal letdown. Another oft-criticized player emerged as a true leader by responding from adversity and continuing to lead Croatia’s defense for the third consecutive major tournament.
The common flaws at left back and holding midfielder were always discussed following most games. Ivan Strinic didn’t make any glowing impression, but he was relatively composed. The recently recalled left back should have closed down right back Gokhan Gonul better on a few occasions. It was still a positive performance from him, along with Badelj, who responded well from a difficult first half of being caught out of position. He isn’t technically gifted on the ball like Modric or Rakitic, but crafty enough to maneuver past opposing players to generate attacks. It wasn’t surprising to see Modric more effective, when he is playing alongside a player, who understands his defensive responsibilities.
The jury is still obviously out on Ante Cacic. Other than not making earlier substitutions, he did a fairly good job. Bringing on speedy forwards Andrej Kramaric and Marko Pjaca proved to be a wise decision. They wasted valuable time by making quality runs and testing Turkey’s center backs. Forcing tired defenders to battle against fresh forwards can take precious time off the clock. After seeing Roy Hodgson’s tactical blunder last Saturday against Russia, it was positive to see Cacic utilize his options and stop Turkey from gaining any real momentum.
In a new expanded format, it will likely take only one victory to reach the knockout stage. All signs are pointed towards Croatia finally getting out of group stage for the time since Euro 2008. Expectations need to be tempered, but this is a wide-open tournament. No team has looked extraordinary yet. It doesn’t hurt to dream about the possibility of a big game against Italy or Germany. This will take a game-by-game process, as Cacic hopefully emphasizes heading into Friday’s matchup against a desperate Czech Republic team. Croatia has the pieces to make a memorable run. Based on their exhilarating attack and cohesive back four, everything appears to be on track so far. With new stars (Rakitic, Perisic) taking larger roles and the heart-and-soul (Modric, Corluka) playing at a high level, the pre-tournament hype about Croatia being a true dark horse may finally be validated.