World Cup qualifying returns on Friday, as Croatia continues their journey to Russia. It should be a fascinating match against a rejuvenated Ukraine side managed by legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko. Ukraine is currently two points behind Croatia in Group I. For the first time in two years, Croatia will actually play behind their supporters in a competitive game. The lengthy stadium ban has finally ended. While things are far from settled with the federation, they face more issues on the field.
Ivan Perišić is suspended for the match, as he committed a silly unnecessary foul against Iceland. Ante Čačić had plenty of time to prepare without his star winger. The recent injuries to Vedran Ćorluka and Šime Vrsaljko are the biggest concerns headed into Friday. Both players are easily their most reliable defenders. Ćorluka was outstanding at Euro 2016, while Vrsajlko is one of the few players to feature in every World Cup qualifying match so far.
Losing both players presents major questions to a young back four. Dejan Lovren continues to be unreliable, as his status with Croatia is unknown. He was recalled to the national team in September. Čačić confirmed any previous issues between them were buried. Lovren had been sidelined with a knee injury over the past month. After playing for Liverpool’s under-23 team and being listed as a substitute against Manchester City, he appears to be fit. Not calling him up after losing two key defenders is a strange decision by Čačić.
It will be an interesting transition for the back four. Highly rated prospects are going to be thrown into the fire. Tin Jedvaj is expected to replace Vrsaljko at right back. Despite rumors about Darijo Srna possibly returning, Čačić dismissed those reports. It’s the right decision based on working towards the future and giving these players an opportunity on a big stage. This isn’t a do-or-die scenario. No manager can solely depend on one right back. A capable backup will be required at some point.
Srna’s incredible durability never put them in that position. They finally face uncertainty at right back, as Jedvaj will claim that role. He is a strange fit based on being six foot two. Croatia hasn’t used a tall right back, since Ćorluka started there from 2006 to 2009. Bayer Leverkusen has used him at every defensive position. Jedvaj’s versatility is going to be beneficial for the national team. The natural center back possesses a calm touch, knack for consistently winning in the air, and athleticism.
As Croatia copes with the loss of Perišić, they will get Marko Pjaca back from injury. It was crucial for them to have at least one natural winger in the starting lineup. Where Čačić plays him is the pressing question, as they will need to provide defensive support for Jedvaj. Marcelo Brozović should play on the right side, despite not being a natural winger. They could use his work rate, ability to break up attacks, and long range shooting.
That would put Pjaca on the left wing, which allows him slightly more freedom. The Juventus winger will need to be defensively sound based on Josip Pivaric struggling at left back. Kosovo and Iceland found success targeting him. Ivan Strinic hasn’t played much for Napoli, but he is a far better player than Pivaric. As Milan Badelj solidified Croatia’s need for a reliable holding midfielder, the lack of a reliable left back remains. Dynamic winger Andriy Yarmolenko is going to test them at some point.
That would put Pjaca on the left wing, which allows him slightly more freedom. The Juventus winger will need to be defensively sound based on Josip Pivaric’s issues at left back. Kosovo and Iceland found success targeting him. Ivan Strinic hasn’t played much for Napoli, but he is a far better player than Pivaric. As Milan Badelj solidified Croatia’s need for a reliable holding midfielder, the lack of a consistent left back remains. Dynamic winger Andriy Yarmolenko is going to test them at some point.
With Lovren being unavailable and Jedvaj filling in at right back, Matej Mitrovic is expected to line up alongside Domagoj Vida. The young center back joined Besiktas in January. He replaced Corluka in a World Cup qualifying match against Finland. Although Mitrovic looked composed, his distribution wasn’t impressive against a below average opponent. Corluka’s passing ability and high IQ will be greatly missed. It complements Vida’s aggressive, physical style.
Expect Luka Modric to take even more command in possession. Neither Mitrovic nor Vida offers much from a passing standpoint. The midfield maestro looks to be fully fit for the first time, since their match against Turkey last September. That should help an untested back line, as Vida is the only player with real tournament experience.
This isn’t a must win scenario, but Croatia should win their remaining home games. Away fixtures against Iceland, Turkey, and Ukraine await them in 2017. Jedvaj and Mitrovic could be a potential partnership in 2020. How they fare in their respective roles will be important to observe. Pjaca’s return should be exciting as well. For all the criticism about his poor performance at Euro 2016, Mario Mandzukic has rebounded with an excellent season at Juventus. The big aerial threat will press Ukraine’s back four and look to get on the receiving end of many crosses. This should be a good test for Croatia, as we’ll see several young players compete in a key qualifier.
Expected lineup: Subsasic, Jedvaj, Mitrovic, Vida, Pivaric, Badelj, Modric, Pjaca, Rakitic, Brozovic, Mandzukic