Euro 2020 preview, Group D – Croatia: Ivan Zezelj believes new-look Croatia could be dark horses
Our Matchday Squad will cover every nation at the Euros
For Euro 2020, we’ve assembled 24 expert journalists to give you the latest insight and tips on every team throughout the tournament.
Here, journalist Ivan Zezelj gives us his take on Croatia…
Give us an overview of your team’s chances at Euro 2020
Despite the changes that have occurred since reaching the World Cup final in 2018, Croatia supporters remain confident that their team will be among the contenders for European Championship silverware.
Fans, however, view it from a highly subjective perspective, as they always do. Objectively, Croatia isn’t a leading title contender for Euro 2020 but they can be considered a dark horse for the tournament just like three years ago.
Since only three of their starting XI from the Moscow final have appeared in recent games, there has been a generational shift within the squad. Names like Mandzukic, Subasic, and Rakitic ended their international careers after the last major tournament, but Zlatko Dalic has done a good job of introducing a new wave of players and particularly a lot of young talent.
Croatia did well during the Euro 2020 qualification and topped their group despite dropping points to Wales, Hungary and Azerbaijan.
Dalic will try to restore the team’s cohesion and energy from the World Cup, and he will hope that his project of combining experienced and young players with a dash of his man-management magic will pay off and prove to be the right one for a great end result.
What would you say are your team’s major strengths?
The captain, Luka Modric, remains Croatia’s major strength despite being 35-years-old. His authority on and off the pitch, as well as his vast experience, are invaluable to Croatia.
Modric is Real Madrid and Croatia’s best midfielder, and he has consistently outperformed all other players in the team over the years, despite appearing to be a spent force after the exhausting World Cup.
Croatia is a much stronger force with him than without him, and given that Euro 2020 will be his final major international tournament, we expect him to step up and lead the team to glory for the final time.
And any weaknesses?
Croatia’s greatest weakness would be its dependency on Modric. The biggest question to answer for Dalic will be how to set up his team without the captain.
Modric surely won’t be able to perform at the top-level fitness-wise in all three group games, but there’s Mateo Kovacic who is expected to step into the captain’s boots as he has had an excellent season for Chelsea, both under Lampard and Tuchel.
Furthermore, Croatia also finds it difficult to play against weaker sides. Most of the time, it appears that there is no clear plan for breaking down stubborn and low-block defences, and when there appears to be a plan, it is simply very poorly executed.
Also, Dalic’s first choice centre-backs are Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren who are not in the form they were at the last World Cup. It will be interesting to see how many minutes they will get, especially when you bear in mind that Dalic has talented third options. It may also provide an opportunity to experiment with tactics and play with three at the back but that remains to be seen.
Give us the lowdown on your team’s star player?
Luka Modric does not need to be specifically represented. The star of Real and Croatia reached the crown of his career in 2018 when he was named the best player in the world after he led his national team to a silver medal in Moscow.
Modric has also established himself as a key Real Madrid player in recent seasons, regardless of who was the coach of the Spanish side.
The dominant midfielder led Croatia out of its limits in the last big tournament and more of the same is expected from him at Euro 2020, which will most likely be his last big competition.
And tell us about a player from your team who could be a breakthrough star at this tournament?
With some fresh names introduced in Croatia’s team after second place in Russia, like Brekalo, Petkovic, Barisic, Livakovic, Pasalic, Bradaric and Caleta-Car, the most notably one is Nikola Vlasic.
The Everton ‘flop’ is in great form at CSKA Moscow and he is set to explode at Euro 2020 to prove English critics wrong. After 12 goals last season and the top goalscorer title, Vlasic did it again this season where he tops the charts for both goals (11) and assists (5) for his club.
Vlasic, who is 23-years-old, is valued at €30 million in the transfer market, and the biggest European clubs will undoubtedly keep a close eye on him in the European Championships.
How far do you think your team can go in this tournament?
Croatia aren’t the favourites for the trophy, but they aren’t the outsiders either. That’s why they perfectly fall into the dark horse definition. To get far into the tournament, Croatia will need that team spirit from the last World Cup as well as more than one player who will spark and have the tournament of his career.
The more experienced ones will rely on that experience, but the young and talented ones must find true motivation to shine. These motivations should not be lacking either because many Croatian names are followed by big European clubs and, for most, a good tournament would provide a new and more lucrative transfer.
Everything after the quarter-finals will satisfy me if, as I do feel, that psychological wound Croatia got from Turkey after the shoot-out at Euro 2008 healed. It should have.
Croatia have made it through the group stage at three Euros but failed in the next stage all three times: getting knocked out once in regular time, once after extra time and once on penalties. It’s time to change that.
Easy one to finish with, who wins the tournament, and who do you think will be top scorer?
I’m very bad at predictions, but if I had to choose, I’d go with England and Harry Kane. Don’t ask me why, I just have the feeling that it’s the year when football will finally come home.