World Cup - Country profile: Croatia

We profile 2014 World Cup finalists Croatia, who made the finals after a late change of coach.

Reuters
World Cup - Country profile: Croatia
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Hırvatistan oyuncusu Luka Modric

Form and Prospects

Having taken over at a difficult time for Croatia, coaching novice Niko Kovac passed the European play-off test with flying colours with a 2-0 aggregate win over Iceland that took them to the World Cup finals.

The 42-year old former defensive midfielder replaced Igor Stimac, who was sacked after a 2-0 defeat by Scotland in their final Group A match, only a few weeks before the two-legged decider.

Known for his no-nonsense approach as a player, Kovac hit the ground running to earn a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Reykjavik, a good result after Croatia had picked up only one point in their last four games under Stimac.

His team selection and formation paid dividends in the second leg with an impressive 2-0 win despite being reduced to 10 men following the first half sending off of striker Mario Mandzukic, shortly after he scored the opener.

Emulating past glory is never an easy task even for stronger football nations than Croatia but that is exactly what the Balkan country of 4.5 million will be asked to do in Brazil by their success-hungry fans.

The Croatians raised the bar in their maiden appearance as an independent nation in 1998 when, led by striker Davor Suker, they reached the semi-finals and went on to beat Holland in the third-place play-off.

But the Croatians have failed to come even close to repeating the feat since, going out narrowly in the group stages in 2002 and 2006 before missing the 2010 tournament after a poor qualifying campaign.

The present generation, led by midfielder Luka Modric and towering striker Mandzukic, has the potential to reach the knockout rounds.

However an ageing defence and imminent suspension for Mandzukic, for his sending off against Iceland, are the chinks in Croatia's armour which coach Kovac must reinforce in order to avoid another early elimination.

Coach: Niko Kovac

Kovac coached the Croatian under-21 side to four wins out of four in their Euro 2015 qualifiers before his promotion to the senior team.

Although he lacks experience at the highest level as a coach, the confident and wily Kovac will hardly be overawed by the task of making an impact at the 2014 World Cup after being an automatic starter for his country in the 2002 and 2006 tournaments.

He also played in the 1998 qualifying campaign and only missed the finals, where Croatia sent shockwaves after finishing third, because he failed to recover from injury.

As a player Kovac scored 14 goals in 83 international appearances for Croatia.

Key player: Luka Modric

The form of central midfielder Modric will be crucial for Croatia's bid to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time since their memorable run to the semi-finals at France 1998.

Modric's abilities made him a key player at Tottenham Hotspur during his four year-spell at the Premier League club from 2008-2012 and earned him a move to Real Madrid, where he has shown gritty determination to break into the first eleven after struggling in his first season.

The 28-year-old has the vision, passing and close control that goes hand-in-hand with his tireless running and defensive ability utilised by club and country alike.

Having started as an attacking midfielder at Dinamo Zagreb, Modric was often asked to play in a deeper role when he moved to a higher level as his versatility came to the fore.

In his prime heading to Brazil he should keep pulling the strings in midfield for some time to come after forming a formidable partnership with 19-year old prospect Mateo Kovacic, who has been touted as his successor.

How they qualified

Runners-up European Group A.

World Cup record

Previous appearances: 3 (1998, 2002, 2006).

Best performance: Semi-finalists 1998.

Odds

100-1.

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