World Cup: Modric carries Croatia's hopes

World Cup: Modric carries Croatia's hopes

Hopes are high in Croatia that the national team can produce their best World Cup showing since their debut in 1998.

Back then, the Croats finished third in France, with striker Davor Suker finishing as the tournament's top scorer and Robert Prosinecki shining in midfield.

Now faith has been placed in Mario Mandzukic and Luka Modric to lead the country to the knockout stages once again, after Croatia failed to get through their group in both 2002 and 2006 and failed to even qualify last time in South Africa.

Following another group-stage exit from Euro 2012, head coach Slaven Bilic was replaced at the helm by fellow France '98 veteran Igor Stimac, who proved to be an unpopular choice.

STUTTERING

A stuttering campaign, which included two defeats by Scotland and a loss at home to group winners Belgium, left Croatia with only a play-off place and Stimac was sacked before the two-legged tie with Iceland.

In his place came Under-21 coach Niko Kovac, the country's former captain. He successfully negotiated the play-offs, but they came at a price. Mandzukic was sent off, while defender Josip Simunic led the fans in a post-match chant that carried pro-Nazi connotations, which landed the veteran a 10-match ban, although the apparent damage does not appear to be as serious as first thought.

Bayern Munich striker Mandzukic will miss only one game - the opener against Brazil - and will be available to face Cameroon andMexico in the games that will likely decide Croatia's fate.

In defence, Simunic's absence will not be felt should Dejan Lovren, the likely partner for Vedran Corluka in the back four, continue the form that has made him a revelation at Southampton in the Premier League.

The midfield will be built around Modric, who has morphed from a squad player to a first-choice starter for Real Madrid in the past season, while Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic is another who has shone in Spain.

Should the duo produce the same form in Brazil, with Lovren offering defensive security and Mandzukic a goal threat in attack, Croatia could well reach the second round for the first time in 16 years.

Kovac was dealt a blow on the eve of the tournament when attacking midfielder Niko Kranjcar was ruled out after suffering a leg injury while helping QPR win the English Championship play-off final - and secure promotion back to the Premier League. Kovacsaid: "I'm extremely sorry for Niko. He is one of the most experienced players in our squad and he deserved to be part of it in Brazi.

"I needed Niko with his experience and good shape but we have to go on."

Kovac was a tough, uncompromising midfielder who was seconds away from captaining Croatia to a first-ever semi-final at Euro 2008.

Having hung up his boots, he had a couple of coaching roles before taking charge of Croatia's Under-21 side.

He was soon promoted to rescue the senior squad following Stimac's troubled spell in charge and began with a morale-boosting play-off success.


This article was first published on June 10, 2014.
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