Before we get to the obvious catastrophe which this last qualifying campaign turned out to be, let’s go through the positives. Because there were positives, believe it or not.
1) Croatia can still make the World Cup! And when/if that happens and ‘Lijepa Naša’ is being blasted throughout Brazilian stadiums in front of the entire world, we won’t be thinking about any losses to Scotland. I can guarantee you that.
2) We didn’t lose to Serbia. Even tough Croatia had a rough qualifying campaign, at least we didn’t give the Serbs bragging rights. And on top of that, Croatia were the team to officially end Serbia’s World Cup hopes. Two wins would have been nice, but a victory in front of our own fans in Zagreb and a draw on the road gave Croatia the all around W this round.
3) New blood. Something was wrong with the team. Call it chemistry. Call it morale. Call it whatever you want, but something was wrong. Igor Šimac is now out and one of the most respected players in Croatian history, Niko Kovač, takes over the team. It’s a perfect time for a managerial change and should wake the team up going into the playoff round.
4) No casualties going into the playoff round. As I say on a regular basis: “It can always we better and it can always be worse.” Croatia will be entering the playoff round without any major injuries or suspensions. The starting XI will be intact (minus Ognjen Vukojević) and they will be ready to go come November 15th. The playoff draw is set for Monday, October 21st.
1) Thanks Italy. Yes, we have to thank the Italians for even being in this position right now. With all things being equal in qualifying, if Alberto Aquilani did not score in injury time against Denmark on Friday to force a 2-2 draw, Croatia would have been the worst 2nd placed team, hence, missing the playoff altogether. Italy was already qualified for the World Cup and had nothing to gain with the goal. So once again, as much as it pains me to say, thanks Italy.
2) Late game heroics. Croatia needed two ridiculously late goals by Lovren and Eduardo to beat Wales on the road. They pressed and pressed after Bale’s 1st half penalty but couldn’t crack a mediocre Welsh defense.
3) The Rakitić bomb. Remember when Ivan Rakitić attempted a 40-yard free kick against Macedonia, trying to catch the goalie off his line? Well, it didn’t work. Remember when he tried it again in the second half and the ball ended up in the back of the net? That goal was the decider in the 2-1 win. You would think Croatia had the talent and caliber to defeat a side like Macedonia without throwing up Hail Mary’s. Guess not.
CroatianSports.com Farewell to Igor Štimac: You will not be missed
Where to begin? Let’s look at some stats…
1) Where the goals at? In 10 World Cup qualifiers, Croatia only scored 12 goals. That’s an average of 1.2 goals per game. You can’t expect to win many games like that.
2) Pace yourself. Croatia never scored more than 2 goals in ANY match this qualifying cycle. The offense has been inept and Mario Mandžukić is not getting anywhere near the service he’s receiving at Bayern Munich. Give the man the ball in the air and let him do his thing. Ivica Olić tap-in goal or not. Who cares?
3) Scotland? After what we can all call a successful Euro 2012 campaign, if someone were to tell you that Croatia would lose to Scotland, not once, but twice in qualifying, they would have put them in a straight jacket and carried them off to the crazy house. The 1-0 loss in Zagreb ended all hope of finishing 1st in the group. This current Belgium side was not going to slip up and drop points.
4) Scotland, again?! What if I were to tell you that Croatia would not score ONE goal against the Scots in 180 minutes of play? What if I were to say that the Vatreni would not manage their first shot on goal against Scotland until midway through the 2nd half of the first game? “Impossible” you would say! “Kvartuč, stop messing around with me” you would laugh. Well, it happened.
5) Maksimir fortress, no more. The only fortified thing in Croatian football is ziva istina’s basement at the moment. Croatia never lost at Maksimir! It was unheard of. And then they finally slipped up against England in 2010 World Cup qualifying losing 4-1. Okay, it happens, but to lose to Belgium and Scotland in the same qualifying campaign raises questions. The magic of Maksimir is gone. Time for Split, Rijeka and Osijek to showcase some more games.
6) Prozac usage rises 600% in Croatia. I think I can speak for all of us when I say, “This campaign was depressing.” After a Euro 2012 where Croatia went toe-to-toe with tournament finalists Spain and Italy, and then for us to watch them squeak by Wales and Macedonia (I won’t even mention Scotland again), it was just sad. I always treat days Croatia plays like a holiday. I take the day off, wake up early, read what the Croatian media are saying about the game and possible formations. I’m like a kid going to Disneyland for the first time. That feeling wasn’t there this time around. Watching Croatia play without urgency to score killed me. It was almost like The Simpsons parody on soccer came to life. Then I turn the channel at halftime to see teams like Spain, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands blasting balls on frame with no fear. It bummed me out.
But then again, just like the Turkey playoff two years ago, if Croatia makes it to Brazil- everything will be forgotten. I can guarantee you all that we won’t be talking about any of the above mentioned issues in the summer of 2014, because we’ll be talking about taking down World Cup contenders instead. It’s what we do. It’s in our blood. We aim to be the best.
If we can can get past this playoff hump and cruise into the World Cup with this crop of players, in form and drama free, who knows what can happen when the checkers hit the field in Brazil. But first things first…who draws Croatia on October 21st?