When it comes to mentalities, Croatians tend to have an “us against the world” mindset. In the past two major tournaments, they’ve played against both tournament finalists and host nation. They’ve been on the receiving end of terrible decisions favoring the biggest nations. From Vedran Corluka’s jersey being torn apart in the box against Spain to Fred falling down as if Dejan Lovren directly kicked him in the shin, common phrases such as “what if” and “everyone is against us” have been uttered by many Croatians.
Going into Euro 2016, the federation’s ongoing issues became another obstacle for a Croatian team that really needed to do something special. The expanded format presented a more accessible route to play in the knockout stage. It was time for this talented squad to move on from the past four years of mostly underwhelming performances.
By outplaying Turkey and dominating Czech Republic for 70 minutes, they’ve finally put together consecutive positive performances and reached the knockout stage. Stakes were still high going into the match against Spain. Despite Ante Cacic resting players carrying injuries or yellow cards, he still played Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic to counter Spain’s unchanged star-studded starting eleven. Nobody knew what to expect from a Croatian side featuring inexperienced players such as Marko Rog and Marko Pjaca.
The passing wasn’t very crisp, possession was lost on far too many occasions, and organization from defending set pieces proved to be an issue. Those were inevitable concerns for a team starting young players at key positions. They rectified their shortcomings by relentlessly pressuring Spain and constantly pressing forward without any fear.
Rog and Pjaca personified the team’s fearless attitude. Rog constantly pressured Iniesta and forced him to make safe passes. As you can see from Slaven Bilic and Ian Wright analyzing the star midfielder, Czech Republic and Turkey failed to close him down in dangerous areas. When Iniesta gets space, he’s more than likely going to deliver a decisive pass. Alongside Milan Badelj, Rog consistently harassed every Spanish midfielder. It was an admirable performance from both central midfielders. Somewhere, Niko Kovac has to be wondering why he didn’t start Badelj over Marcelo Brozovic as a holding midfielder. Badelj continues to improve following a subpar performance against Turkey.
While they clashed with Spain’s star-studded midfield, Pjaca kept taking on defenders and trying to create scoring opportunities. It took time for him to get into the game. The first half was difficult, due to Croatia’s lack of possession. As the game wore on, the highly rated prospect was challenging opposing defenders at will. According to Who Scored, he completed seven dribbles. This was a positive learning experience for the in-demand winger. Besides not tracking back defensively at times and diving theatrically, Pjaca played his way into becoming one of the main options off the bench. He started the game-winning counter attack with a nifty pass upfield.
Despite his limitations as a striker, Nikola Kalinic was outstanding against Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. Winning headers and holding up the ball effectively hasn’t been a problem for Croatia, as Mario Mandzukic does it on a routine basis. Distributing the ball effectively is an issue for Mandzukic. His decision-making lets him down on far too many occasions, although he did link up well with Rakitic and Perisic against Czech Republic.
Kalinic proved to be a revelation as a lone striker. He remained composed, while linking up with Perisic and Pjaca to create positive attacks. Despite not being the aggressor that Mandzukic is, Kalinic’s calm approach was extremely beneficial. His intelligent run caught Ramos off guard to score a well-deserved equalizer. Mandzukic’s runs are mostly effective from using his sheer size. A change is needed for particular matchups. Utilizing Kalinic showcased Croatia’s other striking options.
It was a great performance for a player, who wasn’t even called up for the 2014 World Cup. Kalinic is infamously known for his inability to score goals and getting into a heated argument with Darijo Srna. The once-forgotten striker made a strong case to start over Mandzukic on Saturday. His chemistry with Perisic gave Spain fits, especially on the second goal. It takes proper timing and execution to produce a successful counter attack. Kalinic’s patience to find Perisic is something that deserves to be acknowledged. Combine his craftiness with an excellent goal and forcing David De Gea into a near game-changing mistake, Cacic may want to stick with him.
Despite all of their efforts, this historical win wouldn’t have occurred without Perisic. There hasn’t been a Croatian player this lethal since Eduardo during Euro 2008 qualification stage. Juanfran is one of the top right backs in the world. He struggled to contain him, which includes failing to run back on the game-winning goal. Perisic’s speed, technical ability, and remarkable stamina were displayed in a man of the match performance. Gareth Bale and Dimitri Payet have some extra competition for the player of the tournament award.
The looming concerns going into the tournament were well documented. Phrases such as “mental midgets” were used to describe Croatia following an extremely disappointing 2014 World Cup campaign. By coming back from an emotional setback and defeating the European champions, they are ascending from dark horses into potential favorites. Although a much-easier bracket will benefit them, why can’t this team beat the likes of Germany, France, and Italy?
They should be at full-strength going into Saturday’s game. Tin Jedvaj played admirable against premier competition, but Domagoj Vida was missed. The young centerback lost Ramos on multiple corners and was mainly responsible for the first goal. Vida’s physical style coincides well with Vedran Corluka, who continues to play at a high level. Ivan Strinic will likely return as well. After Sime Vrsaljko’s shaky performance, Strinic can’t afford to pick up another yellow card. The back four needs to maintain their balance.
As long as Luka Modric remains healthy, there is no reason why they can’t reach the quarterfinals. The threat of Cristiano Ronaldo can be diminished by Modric’s exceptional control and distribution in the midfield. He seems to have a strong rapport with Badelj. That will be crucial against an unbalanced Portugal midfield. Mandzukic and Brozovic are likely to reclaim their starting places, although it shouldn’t be guaranteed following Tuesday’s monumental victory.
Euro 2012 was a bittersweet tournament for Croatia. They played exceptionally well against Spain and Italy in highly competitive games. It was difficult to say goodbye to Bilic, who is beloved by most fans. Coaching instability and unsteady morale surrounded them over the next three years. With Ante Cacic proving to be a no-nonsense player-friendly coach, the squad appears to be more united than ever. When a talented squad is on the same page, the possibilities are endless. That was proven against a team, which hadn’t lost in the European Championship since 2004.