Grabbing 7 out of a maximum 9 points this week for Croatia was absolutely perfect! Especially when the Vatreni only scored one goal in their first two matches.
Obviously, a win against Russia would have been the cherry on top of the cake, but it’s never easy to go into Moscow – especially without an in-form striker – and expect a result. We just witnessed Croatia’s toughest week of 2022 World Cup qualifying and we have to feel good going into October. The matches against Russia and Slovakia on the road were anything but pretty but Perišić and the boys showed their superiority against Slovenia in Split without Luka Modrić. So where does that put Croatia going into the final four matches in October and November?
Croatia currently sit top spot in Group H; pipping Russia by +1 in the ‘Goal Differential’ column. Goal differential is the first tiebreaker in World Cup matches, so this could come into play later. It’s important to finish top spot in group because only 1st place gets an automatic berth to Qatar in 2022. The 2nd place team would have to backdoor their spot through a “too complicated to share now” 4-team playoff in March of 2022. Croatia has played in every World Cup they have been eligible for since 1991 except for one: 2010 in South Africa. However, the Vatreni have only qualified directly twice: 2002 and 2006. In 1998, 2014, and 2018, a playoff was needed to get into the ‘Big Dance’.
Now, Croatia has the upper hand to qualify directly for the World Cup for the first time since 2006. Luka Modrić should be at 100% health in October. Nikola Vlašić will have a month under his belt at West Ham in the Premiership. Can Andrej Kramarić figure out his goal scoring woes in the Croatian checkers? Will Rebić, Brekalo, Vrsaljko return in 2022? There was tons of firepower not available for Dalić this past week. Injuries will heal, but can the same thing be said for egos? Looking at you Ante Rebić.
Croatia will only have two matches in October: October 8th in Cyprus and October 11th against Slovakia in Osijek. With our players well into their club seasons, I can’t see us not picking up two wins with so much on the line. It will be a tough week for Russia as they host Slovakia before hopping on a plane to face a tricky Slovenia side. I see Russia dropping points in October which will open the door for Dalić and company. Even if Croatia only pick up four points from this week of matches, their first match of November is Malta before the group finale against Russia at Poljud. Worst case scenario – unless the sky falls – Croatia will need a draw against Russia at home on the final day to qualify for the World Cup. And you would take that scenario all day long.
But I still have a feeling Russia will implode when it matters most.
Four qualifiers remaining in 2022. Who will step up to be Croatia’s #1 striker? That is the burning question in my eyes. Krama, Budimir, Livaja. Who will it be? The defense has figured out a way to keep the ball out of the net, but the team is not scoring enough in my opinion.