After the Croatia-Serbia match on Friday, manager Igor Štimac commented that “the game went according to plan” and that he was “happy with the result.”
I’m sure I’m with the rest of you Croatian fans when I ask: what the hell are you talking about?
I’m fine with the result, as Croatia knocked Serbia out of the World Cup and have set themselves up for a playoff round berth, but to say that the game went according to plan is pathetic.
Knowing Croatia was still in the hunt to finish first in UEFA group A World Cup qualifying, albeit an underdog against Belgium being down three points and -5 in the goal differential column to start the day Friday, it was a pleasant surprise to see Štimac’s lineup against Serbia. It looked as if the Croatian boss and company were not only gunning for the win in Belgrade, but goals galore in a revamped 4-4-2 formation which slotted a third striker, Ivica Olić, behind Mario Mandžukić and Eduardo on the left wing. The back line consisted of three defenders (Ćorluka, Šimunic, Lovren) who all have a history at the centerback position, meaning at a moment’s notice, Croatia could send right back Darijo Srna forward in an aggressive 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation. Defensive midfielder Ognjen Vukojević was slotted in the midfield for added support, freeing up Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić to pull the strings. But then I think to myself, if you’re going for a full offensive approach, why not throw Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovačić in the starting XI instead of Vukojević?
But then the game starts. And within 30 minutes I see what Štimac is up to. He’s either 1) too scared to go for the win in Serbia at the expense of a loss or 2) has no idea how to put together a proper game plan for the weapons he has at his disposal. With that being said, Croatia made Serbia look like Spain in the first half. The Vatreni bunkered down and let the Serbs control ball possession for the entire 45 minutes, emulating Greek-style football in recent years. Counter-attacks were unheard of, balls were being kicked own the field with no plan and Croatian strikers did not touch the ball.
With all the firepower Croatia had in their starting XI, Štimac appeared to play for the tie. And what’s his plan for the rest of the game if that Serbian dummy off the corner goes in and doesn’t ring off the left post? You already have three strikers on the pitch. Scoring goals against this Serbian side wouldn’t be easy if they scored the first goal with Ivanovic, Subotic and Kolarov in their back line. Luckily for Croatia, Srna’s through ball from his own half found a crack in the Serbian defense for a 53rd minute Mario Mandžukic break away goal.
But let me give you some scary numbers Croatian fans. Croatia had only two shots against Serbia on Friday and the Mandžukić goal was their only shot on goal during the entire game. In their last World Cup qualifier against Scotland in June, Croatia had 19 shots with ONLY TWO being on goal. Even more scarier, in their last two qualifiers against Scotland and Serbia, Croatia does not have one shot on goal in the first half. You’re hearing that correctly. Croatia has done nothing in the first half for two straight games.
The strikers are not getting any service from the midfield and the offense has become completely anemic. There is no creativity or urgency on the ball. Croatia will be headed to a two-legged playoff in November but will they have the strength to get out of this rut and qualify for the World Cup in Brazil?
It’s a shame the one-man advantage only lasted five minutes in the second half as all of Croatia’s moral momentum would get flushed down the drain in the 80th minute as the Šimunić freight train rolled into Crvena Zvezda Stadium. It was his only play following the broken corner kick as he rightfully took out Serbia’s Miralem Sulejmani to save a break away and Serbia goal.
Either way, Croatia needed to win by two goals in Belgrade to still have a shot at first place in the group. Belgium defeated Scotland 2-0 on Friday meaning a two-goal win against Belgium at Maksimir in October would put Croatia level on points with the Belgians and only one goal behind them in the tiebreaking scenario with one game to go. Now, Croatia’s only job against Belgium is to win so they don’t celebrate a World Cup berth in your house.
The Scotland loss killed Croatia after a near perfect campaign up to that point. Belgium never dropped any points after the draw with Croatia and are now a draw away from a plane trip to Brazil.
Croatia has been in this situation before. They have some horrible qualifying results creating tension between fans and team, make the playoff, win the playoff and ultimately end up playing with the big boys in the summer. Croatia very well may be in Brazil next summer.
But it needs to be without the services of a tactically inept and arrogant Igor Štimac.