The Vatreni have done it again!
After beating Russia 1-0 in a nail-biter at Poljud, Croatia have qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar! Anything less than three points would have forced Croatia into a four-team playoff for World Cup qualification, but the boys got the job done in wild fashion. Croatia broke the deadlock in the 81st minute, as Borna Sosa’s cross was tapped into the net by Russian defender Fyodor Kudryashov. Although the score was listed as an own-goal, the Vatreni deserved to have AT LEAST one goal on the scoreboard, as they possessed the ball for 69% of the match, completed 621 passes, and shot the ball 19 times. Russia only shot the ball twice during the match, causing very little trouble for Ivo Grbić in net. Thanks to Sunday’s victory, Croatia finished first in their World Cup qualifying group with 23 points. This is only the third time that Croatia has avoided a playoff whilst qualifying for a World Cup.
Now that Croatia has booked a ticket to Qatar in 2022, what have we learned from the qualifiers?
Croatia’s “rebuild” stage following the 2018 World Cup has actually been very good. Despite the retirement of many Vatreni legends, Croatia finished first-placed in both their Euro 2020 and 2022 World Cup qualifying groups and finished second-placed in their Euro 2020 group. Although Zlatko Dalić has made a few tactical errors throughout the last few years, he is successfully reassembling a very competitive Croatian side. In recent matches, Dalić has effectively integrated young players into Croatia’s lineups, a tactic that he struggled to find positive results with in 2019 and 2020. Croatia had an excellent +17 goal differential in their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, scoring 21 times while allowing only four goals. Zlatko Dalić has now coached Croatia to three straight major tournaments, an HNS managerial record. In the midst of a routine rebuild process, Croatia have impressively remained a top-tier footballing nation.
There are many young, talented Croatians to be excited about. 19 year-old defender Joško Gvardiol scored his first goal for Croatia against Cyprus, and his defensive performances were stellar throughout the qualification process. 21 year-old defender Josip Stanišić and 19 year-old midfielder Luka Sučić made their debuts for the national team, as they continue to prove they can hang with the big boys. 24 year-old Lovro Majer scored twice in a must-win match for Croatia against Malta, becoming another role player for the Vatreni. Avoiding a playoff for World Cup contention is huge for Croatia’s youngsters, as Dalić now has the opportunity to play his future stars in friendlies during the international break, rather than starting his best XI in hopes for a World Cup spot. We may see Luka Sučić, Roko Šimić, and many other promising talents feature for the Vatreni in the near future.
All important home matches must be played at Poljud! The electric atmosphere in Split has proven to be a “12th man” for Croatia recently, as the Vatreni have shut-out and beaten Hungary, Slovenia, and Russia in three crucial matches. Whether you support Dinamo, Hajduk, or Arsenal for all I care, there is no denying that the sound of Poljud singing “Cesarica” or “Poljubi Zemlju” before a match brings us all chills. Matches at Poljud also produce some TERRIFIC photos, as shown below!
Last but not least, the Vatreni seem to possess a bit of magic again. After their magical 2018 World Cup run, Croatia put on many dull, upsetting performances. It was evident that there were chemistry and attitude issues within the squad, and that Zlatko Dalić had lost the trust of his best players for a period of time. However, after Euro 2020, Croatia has been playing with the same hunger and desire that they displayed in 2018. The boys’ chemistry seems to be at a high again, and Dalić has made successful adjustments to his lineups and tactics. Dalić’s tears of joy following Croatia’s victory on Sunday are EXACTLY what we want to see. We have passion again. We have talent again. We have hunger, momentum, and joy again. If the Vatreni enter the 2022 World Cup with the same motivation and hope as they did in 2018, Croatia will succeed. Our current roster is even more talented than it was in 2018, and Dalić is approaching four years of experience under his belt with the Vatreni. Croatia has what it takes to bring the World Cup home.
Oh boy, we’re going to Qatar! Words can’t describe the happiness I’ve felt today. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re back.