Croatia's fifth World Cup as an independent nation will see them pitted against the team who beat them to top spot in qualifying, Iceland, with the two countries joining Argentina and Nigeria in Group D. Croatia have not advanced from the group stage since their run to the semi-finals at France '98.
Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
A draw at home to Finland in the penultimate round of fixtures in Group I of the European qualifying section ultimately cost Croatia top spot as they finished second behind Iceland. Mario Mandzukic, who finished on five goals in qualifying, had given Croatia the lead before Finland’s 90th-minute equaliser. Croatia had actually been three points clear before losing to Iceland last June, but a return of seven points from their final five games saw them usurped and led to Zlatko Dalic replacing Ante Cacic in charge.
It also left Croatia facing a play-off to reach the World Cup, but they thrashed Greece 4-1 in Zagreb in their first leg and sealed their progress with a goalless second leg.
Since becoming an independent nation, Croatia have competed at four World Cups, with Russia 2018 to become their fifth. They have exited at the group stage in their last three, however, including last time out in Brazil.
It means their best performance remains their debut one, at France ’98, when Davor Suker’s goals fired them to third place. Suker was one of three of the Croatians in France to have previously been quarter-finalists with Yugoslavia in 1990.
The majority of Croatia’s big-name players were withdrawn from the squad which faced Mexico in March, while Dejan Lovren and Matej Mitrovic were injured. But those two, plus Danijel Subasic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic are all in the preliminary World Cup squad. Vedran Corluka is also available, having played regularly for Lokomotiv Moscow since recovering from the injury that kept him out until March. Newly-capped RB Salzburg defender Duje Caleta-Car is in the squad but Napoli midfielder Marko Rog, Standard striker Duje Cop and Chelsea loanee Mario Pasalic.
Croatia are packed with experienced players based in the major European leagues, including Ivan Rakitic who scored the winning goal in Mexico from the penalty spot. The Barcelona midfielder has been a mainstay of their league and cup double-winning team. Mario Mandzukic was Croatia’s top scorer in qualifying, meanwhile, and proved his quality with two goals and an assist as Juventus nearly stunned Real Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final. Inter’s Ivan Perisic enjoyed his best goal return in a single season since leaving Club Brugge in 2011, meanwhile, as well as weighing in with plenty of assists.
W D L W L
Since Zlatko Dalic took over as manager, Croatia beat Ukraine in Kiev thanks to Andrej Kramaric’s double and followed that up with their play-off win over Greece. All goals were scored in the first leg in Zagreb, which Croatia won 4-1. Croatia’s first defeat under Dalic came in a friendly against Peru in Miami, which they lost 2-0, but they bounced back by beating Mexico thanks to Ivan Rakitic’s penalty. Another defeat to South American opposition followed, however, when Brazil beat the Croatians 2-0 at Anfield.
|1||Dominik Livakovic (Dinamo Zagreb)||23||1 cap||0 goals|
|12||Lovre Kalinic (Gent)||28||10 caps||0 goals|
|23||Danijel Subasic (Monaco)||33||37 caps||0 goals|
|2||Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid)||26||35 caps||0 goals|
|3||Ivan Strinic (Milan)||30||42 caps||0 goals|
|5||Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow)||32||98 caps||4 goals|
|6||Dejan Lovren (Liverpool)||28||38 caps||2 goals|
|13||Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen)||22||11 caps||0 goals|
|15||Duje Caleta Car (Red Bull Salzburg)||21||1 cap||0 goals|
|21||Domagoj Vida (Besiktas)||29||58 caps||2 goals|
|22||Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kyiv)||29||19 caps||0 goals|
|7||Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)||30||91 caps||14 goals|
|8||Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid)||24||40 caps||1 goal|
|10||Luka Modric (Real Madrid)||31||105 caps||12 goals|
|11||Marcelo Brozovic (Inter)||25||34 caps||6 goals|
|14||Filip Bradaric (Rijeka)||26||4 caps||0 goals|
|19||Milan Badelj (Fiorentina)||29||37 caps||1 goal|
|4||Ivan Perisic (Inter)||29||65 caps||17 goals|
|9||Andrej Kramaric (1899 Hoffenheim)||26||30 caps||8 goals|
|16||Nikola Kalinic (Milan)||30||41 caps||15 goals|
|17||Mario Mandzukic (Juventus)||32||82 caps||30 goals|
|18||Ante Rebic(Eintracht Frankfurt)||24||15 caps||1 goal|
|20||Marko Pjaca (Juventus)||23||16 caps||1 goal|
Croatia improved immediately after changing managers at the end of qualifying, and their comfortable play-off win against a Greece side even free-scoring Belgium had found difficult to break down was testament to that.
Packed with experienced players, they have the quality to put right their poor qualification campaign and finish ahead of Iceland – the team that pipped them to top spot and forced them into the play-offs – in Russia.
Should they do so, they will be likely to get through to the second round and they can be backed 1/2 to get out of Group D.
Argentina are favourites to top the group, however, and having lost their most recent meeting with the Argentines, Croatia will likely have to face France in the second round. A group forecast of 1st – Argentina, 2nd – Croatia is 7/4 with Bet365.
Croatia are yet to beat France in five attempts, including in the 1998 World Cup semi-finals, and will be underdogs again if that proceeds as expected. Still, you can back Croatia at a generous 13/8 with Bet365 to succumb in the last-16.
Croatia’s hope of getting through the group stage essentially come down to whether they can do what they failed to do in qualifying – finish ahead of Iceland. It will give them confidence that they beat Iceland 2-0 in their home match, however, despite losing the reverse fixture. Nevertheless, if they do go through, it will likely be France awaiting in the second round.
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Complete list of 32 teams participating in World Cup 2018 and their Group Predictions