Oh boy. Can it be Sunday already?
Croatia hosts Russia at Stadion Poljud on Sunday in “utakmica godine” (the game of the year) as Luka Modrić wrote on Instagram. Luka is absolutely correct, in fact, Sunday’s match is the most important game for Croatia since the 2018 World Cup Final against France. The severity of this match outweighs any 2020 Euro qualifier and group stage/knockout match. The Vatreni can punch their ticket to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a win. Anything else, and Russia is automatically through to the tournament. A draw or a loss for Croatia does not disqualify Croatia from the 2022 World Cup yet, but they would have to enter a four-team playoff for a World Cup berth if they fail to collect all three points.
Now, what can we expect from Croatia on Sunday?
Stadion Poljud will be absolutely rocking and filled to the brim. Within the first six hours of ticket sales, all 34,000 tickets sold out. Croatians from all over the world are attending the match, and Croatia’s faithful will be in full force. The Vatreni have shown excellent results at Stadion Poljud in the last few years, crushing both Hungary and Slovenia 3-0. Home-field advantage should truly be a benefit for the boys on Sunday.
After routing Malta 7-1 on away soil on Thursday, it would be stupid for Zlatko Dalić to make any changes to the starting lineup for Sunday. Lovro Majer put on a show against Malta at the right-wing position, the first time a Croatian has played well down the right flank in many matches. Majer deserves a starting spot on Sunday after scoring twice on Thursday. Mario Pašalić filled the injured Mateo Kovačić’s boots extremely well in the midfield, scoring and assisting on Thursday. He has been an excellent playmaker and finisher for Croatia in the past year. Andrej Kramarić earned himself a massive confidence boost against Malta, assisting twice and scoring from 35-40 yards out. Joško Gvardiol and Duje Ćaleta-Car should 100% start for the Vatreni from now on, considering their impressive form and impact for the Vatreni recently. Only 19 and 25 years-old, the future looks bright for our backline. Josip Juranović and Borna Sosa have proven to be dangerous, attacking wingbacks, and will be needed down the flank to pressure Russia’s expected “park the bus” tactic on Sunday. Zlatko Dalić confirmed that Ivo Grbić will get the start in net for Croatia on Sunday, a sigh of relief for many Croatians, as Dominik Livaković has been out of form and and playing nervously in the box. Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić, Mario Pašalić, Marcelo Brozović, and Andrej Kramarić will most likely start on Sunday, considering they were subbed out of the match early in the second half on Thursday.
IN CONCLUSION: please do not make any changes to the starting XI, Mr. Dalić.
Russia only needs a draw on Sunday for an automatic berth into the 2022 World Cup. As stated before, Russia is going to bunker in the back, and park the bus. The earlier Croatia scores in the match, the easier it will be for the Vatreni to control the tempo of the game. Russia is a solid side and will not make the same mistakes that Malta made on Thursday.
I predict a 2-0 victory for Croatia on Sunday. Andrej Kramarić will score the opening goal midway through the first half, followed by a second half security goal from Ivan Perišić. Sunday’s match is a huge opportunity for the Vatreni to redeem themselves following a rocky three years. Winner takes all, folks. LET’S GO!