Whenever an uncontrollable incident transpires during a game, there is nothing productive about hindering on the setback. The disturbing scenes in the crowd left a damaging effect on the national team. Croatia couldn’t respond following the ongoing flares and disorder within their fan section. Their body language expressed a team that wanted to survive rather than continuing to impose their will. In a major tournament, that will come back to haunt you in some manner, which includes a bizarre handball from one of your more reliable defenders.
It was a difficult draw to digest following an impeccable performance for 70 minutes. For the first time since Euro 2008, analysts were considering Croatia as genuine contenders. The ball movement, specifically from Mario Mandzukic linking up with Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic was brilliant. Luka Modric controlled the midfield for the second consecutive game. Czech Republic is an average team at best, but not many games have been completely one-sided. Powerhouses such as France and Germany haven’t clicked yet. Besides some poor finishing, Croatia has been firing on all cylinders.
Will conceding two goals in 20 minutes and unstable situation derail an unbelievable assortment of talented players? They still have plenty to prove, but this squad is capable of surpassing the Euro 2008 team. Two incredible central midfielders (Modric, Rakitic), a winger full of confidence and ability (Perisic), best holding midfielder since Niko Kovac (Milan Badelj), and a versatile player that doesn’t stop running (Marcelo Brozovic) makes up a stellar midfield. They are the nucleus of this team’s success, along with Mandzukic’s relentless determination.
It’s not fair to compare them yet, as this tournament is completely unpredictable. Croatia isn’t officially in the knock out stages yet. A strong performance against arguably the best team in the tournament is needed for their progression. Securing second place is crucial from a matchup standpoint. It’s not impossible for Czech Republic to pick apart a dysfunctional Turkey team, while Spain beats Croatia. Goal differential could play a pivotal factor behind Croatia falling into third place and possibly playing France or England in Round of 16. Although Italy isn’t far behind, they don’t possess attacking talent on the level of either side. Italy is a far more fitting matchup.
Of course, nobody wants to eliminate the possibility of coming in first place. That vision took a significant hit, as Modric is expected to miss Tuesday’s clash. The groin injury is considered severe enough to prevent him from playing in such a short period of time. Although they didn’t lose complete control, everyone can sense that Croatia was a bit shaky without him during the second half on Friday. They missed his control and outstanding passing ability to keep possession in a productive manner. Mateo Kovacic is a highly rated player, but remains as a substantial downgrade from Modric.
As Kovacic continues to develop, he appears to be a much different player from Modric. Instead of trying to find the ideal pass or control possession, Kovacic tends to be more attack-minded by taking on defenders and attempting risky passes. Not many young midfielders play as fearless as him. Unfortunately, that can negatively impact a team, which occurred against Czech Republic. Kovacic attempted a low-percentage through ball that was easily snuffed out. His turnover translated into Milan Skoda scoring on an impressive header from a Tomas Rosicky cross. You rarely see Modric lose possession at all, let alone in his own half.
Ante Cacic will need to rotate the central midfield to avoid potential lapses. Kovacic can’t replace Modric as a deep lying playmaker. Rakitic should drop into that role to help protect the back four alongside Badelj. Spain dominates possession like no other team in Europe. Depending on an untested attacking midfielder in a deeper role could be very costly. With Kovacic in a more attacking role, he can use his speed to potentially combine with Perisic on counter attacks. That is what Croatia will likely need to get a result against Spain. They sat back and improvised efficient counters in their matchup at Euro 2012. Modric was the main operator behind every counter attack from their last encounter. That’s what makes this an even bigger game for Rakitic.
No player has arguably more pressure going into this game than the Barcelona star. His clear-cut miss against Spain will never be forgotten, given the intense stakes. Rakitic will be playing against a fair amount of his club teammates as well. Fans are expecting him to continue playing well in this tournament. While Spain’s midfield is far superior to Turkey and Czech Republic, Rakitic faces strong competition on a consistent basis. He needs to play an integral part for them to not be overrun in the midfield.
The miss against Spain still haunted him a few years later. With a strong mentality and work ethic, Rakitic is now at the forefront of this extremely talented team. They’ll need him to take more defensive responsibility rather than play in a number ten role. It will potentially help push Kovacic into a more comfortable position and support Badelj, who is on a yellow card and needs to be extremely careful.
Spain hasn’t lost in the European Championship since 2004. Besides Portugal pushing them into penalty kicks in the last semifinal, no team came closer to beating Spain than Croatia over the past two tournaments. It took a well-organized unit and brilliant tactics by Slaven Bilic. Playing Darijo Srna and Danijel Pranjic as wingers kept Spain from finding any room on the outside. Both players are full backs, which provided the back four much-needed assistance to contain Spain, before needing to go for broke in the second half.
The current team doesn’t quite have that luxury, as Perisic is arguably their third most valuable player. They could possibly insert Srna as a winger and start Sime Vrsaljko at right back for better defensive fortitude. That may push Brozovic out of the starting lineup, although he could move back into his natural position as a central midfielder. Kovacic doesn’t necessarily deserve a starting spot. If Cacic really wants to focus on being defensive-minded, moving Brozovic into a number ten role could be useful. He is always willing to track back defensively and harass opposing midfielders.
Then again, it can’t be forgotten that Croatia is still capable of finishing in first place. A first place finish would guarantee a matchup against a third place team. Also, it can’t be ignored that Spain isn’t as feared as they once were in 2012 and Croatia’s overall starting eleven features drastically improved players (Rakitic, Perisic). Not adjusting their attack-minded philosophy and trying to take on Spain would be risky. Cacic’s managerial style hasn’t been tested enough in a major tournament. It’s difficult to assess what he may possibly do on Tuesday.
After a soul-crushing loss in Euro 2012 and distress surrounding them from Friday’s debacle, this game will test Croatia’s character. Can they play together without their best player? Will they remain focused, despite knowing the possibility of chaos emerging at any time? Of course, Turkey finally showing up and getting a result against Czech Republic can seal second place. That is the most realistic expectation. A well-organized unit, smart tactics, complete focus, and hopefully better security could push those expectations towards greater lengths.