Croatia face Wales from Gradski Vrt in Osijek Tuesday night in their last World Cup 2014 qualifier of the year. This will be Croatia’s seventh time playing an international match in Osijek, where they have never lost since 1996. The Vatreni have four wins and two draws at Gradski Vrt, which includes a 4-1 win over Latvia in World Cup 2002 qualifying and a 0-0 draw versus Estonia in Euro 2004 qualifying. The other four matches were friendlies, with the last being against this same Wales side in May of 2010, where Croatia won 2-0.
Although anything less than three points on Tuesday would be an absolute catastrophe for Croatia, manager Igor Štimac can still get a result while being responsible for future qualifiers, which includes Croatia’s next game after Wales, an emotional confrontation vs. Serbia on March 22nd, 2013.
Starting defensive midfielder Ognjen Vukojević has already been ruled out of the Wales match due to a yellow card suspension. And with starters Josip Šimunić, Nikica Jelavić, Darijo Srna, Vedran Ćorluka and Luka Modrić all sitting on one yellow card going into Tuesday’s match, Štimac needs to be smart in his starting XI selection. Niko Kranjčar and Gordon Schildenfeld also have a caution to their name.
Should any of the above mentioned Croatian players receive a yellow card in the match against Wales, they would be ineligible for the Serbia match in March. Wales is no walkover, however, Croatia should have no problem taking care of business with a few key starters taken out of the lineup. As long as the Vatreni can stop Tottenham Hotspur star Gareth Bale on the left side, the Welsh should not have any solid looks at goal. Bale has scored all three goals for Wales this qualifying campaign: a splendid free kick vs. Serbia and two goals against Scotland this past Saturday; a penalty kick and a world-class strike from outside the box to win it 2-1.
Because Croatia needs to be wary of yellow cards, a revamped starting XI should be introduced vs. Wales. Dejan Lovren should return in place of Vedran Ćorluka at center-back and Domagoj Vida needs to replace captain Darijo Srna at the right-back position. With Vukojević out and Modrić on a yellow card, Štimac should elect a two-man center midfield which consists of new Hamburg signing Milan Badelj and Hajduk Split youngster Josip Radošević, who played well in his first game for Croatia vs. Belgium. Jelavić and Mandžukić should take a seat in order to make way for Eduardo in a 4-2-3-1 formation which would see Croatia control ball possession. The two Croatian frontmen haven’t been receiving proper service as of late anyways, so a more technical approach with Eduardo, who scored two goals vs. Switzerland last time we saw him, should work. If this starting XI can’t get the job done, there would be plenty of firepower available off the bench.
And for you Croatian fans that were unhappy with Croatia’s past two performances versus Macedonia, you should be ecstatic that they earned all six points in the two matches. This quasi-journalist says that Macedonia will take points off of Belgium AND Serbia this qualifying campaign. They may not win, but a draw in either Skopje or on the road will be in the works.
Croatia needs to grab three points in Osijek without any key player being suspended for the Serbia match and World Cup 2014 qualifying should be considered an absolute success up to this point.
My starting XI vs. Wales:
As long as Vida can keep physical with Bale and receive help from one of his defensive midfielders, Wales should not see a solid look at goal on the day. It has also been rumored that fans in Osijek could walk out of the stadium if Sammir sees the pitch.