Written by Allen “Outraged” Strk
After a lackluster 2-0 victory over Malta in September, Croatia are back in action for two European qualifiers in a 4-day span starting Friday. A trip to Bulgaria and a home game against Azerbaijan awaits Croatia, as they look to continue to gel under manager Niko Kovač. The lingering questions at the holding midfielder and left back position are still prevalent. Nobody knows what Kovač’s plan is for those two areas of concern. There isn’t one tested defensive midfielder on the roster, while the left back selection between Ivan Strinić and Hrvoje Millć is unclear at this point.
You can only speculate for so long before giving up on formulating a realistic opinion. No information has leaked out on what Kovač favors in those areas. What we can speculate on is the return of Ivan Perišić and how it affects the starting lineup. Perišić is back from a long layoff, after separating his shoulder in a friendly, and will be a vital piece to this Croatia squad after solidifying his position in the starting XI at the World Cup. Although he hasn’t completely lived up to expectations for the Vatreni in his short 3-year tenure with the team, his time to shine is now.
Some may blame Igor Štimac for failing to utilize him properly. There were times that Perišić was in the center of the midfield trying to create, which isn’t his forte. Who can forget his infamous back pass to Romelu Lukaku that set up the first goal for Belgium in their 2-1 victory over Croatia last October? Why was he playing so deep in central midfield? Nobody will ever know those questionable tactics. Kovač seemed to get the best out of Perišić, playing him on the right wing throughout the tournament. Besides the second half of the Cameroon game, he became comfortable on the right side and delivered quality passes throughout the tournament. When all the pundits were talking about star midfielders Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, it was Perišić who had the best game against Brazil, delivering dangerous crosses into the box.
He has dealt with inconsistencies throughout his career in fading out of games or having his shots end up in the 12th row. In his three games at the World Cup, he seemed comfortable in playing on the wing and threatening opposing backs with pace. Now the major question for Perišić, besides remaining on form, is how does he fit into the starting lineup? Kovač seems adamant on continuing to start Alen Halilović to give him more experience. I’m not exactly opposed to that for now, although I’d keep him on the bench against a top-level team like Italy. The issue is that he plays at the right attacking wing position, which is where Perišić became comfortable playing at.
I’m sure that he wouldn’t have any issues moving back to the left side. It’s just harsh to move a player to a different position after being the top player for the national team at a major tournament. Now he’s essentially forced to the other side because the new “golden boy” is more comfortable in playing on the right wing. I may be overreacting to the switch, although it does seem silly. We could question Kovač for potentially making that decision, but something enthralling could be emerging in Croatia.
If Halilović continues to evolve and becomes more comfortable playing for the national team, it’ll give Croatia two legitimate wingers with pace. You can’t convince me that Ivica Olić is a legitimate winger. He fit in that slot simply from his relentless work ethic. With two actual wingers, they won’t have to be so reliant on Darijo Srna having to deliver eight to ten crosses a game. Croatia looks to have two capable wingers that can change the game in an instant. You can make the argument that Croatia hasn’t had that since Marko Babić and Srna in the 2006 World Cup. Perišić and Halilović are clearly bigger talents, as they play for big clubs and haven’t hit their prime yet.
It’s an exciting visualization to see Croatia play with more pace. In past qualification stages, we’d see Croatia having to rely on ball movement and precise runs to create chances. Besides Eduardo and Modrić, on occasion, you’d rarely see any other players take on defenders. Now Croatia has two players in the starting lineup that are willing and capable in doing so. Mateo Kovačić has also shown he’s willing to take on defenders, although he’s been underwhelming for the national team so far in his career.
Despite the lack of confidence in Niko Kovac and some resentment towards Niko Kranjčar not being called up (I’m outraged!), there are still plenty of things to look forward to in the upcoming qualifiers. Will we see a Croatian team that is focused and can win games definitively against lower teams? Will it be similar to the last two qualification stages, where Croatia struggles to put away teams with lesser talent? The lackluster performance against Malta gives an indication that it may be the latter. We’ll find out within the next couple of days. Regardless of your bitterness towards how the World Cup ended, it’s time to look ahead and see this team gel before the showdown with Italy in Milan.