Memories of the 2018 World Cup will inevitably be conjured up when Croatia face England in their opening match of the Euros at Wembley.
It was Mario Manzukic’s winner in extra-time that saw Croatia’s defeat England in Moscow and complete their run to the World Cup final three years ago. While they didn’t go on to win the tournament, Zlatko Dalic’s side climbed to fourth in the world rankings, and were seen as a side to be avoided in future tournaments.
That sense of jeopardy has dissipated over the subsequent three years, however, and England will not be meeting the same opponent this time around. While the ageless Luka Modric remains at the heart of the team at 35, Mandzukic and Ivan Rakatic are long gone, and there has been an absence of youth coming through to give the side a boost ahead of the Euros.
The spine of the team still looks strong, with Modric joined in midfield by Chelsea’s Matteo Kovacic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic to form a tidy unit. In defence there is the experienced pairing of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, while Ivan Perisic, the other goalscorer from the semi-final victory over England, also remains.
But despite having a promising next generation (Croatia knocked England out of the Under-21 Euros back in March), the next wave of talent has yet to break into the senior side, leaving the sense of a team that is a little stale and past its sell-by date.
Croatia’s results this season also convey that they are no longer the threat that they once were. They lost all but one of their Nations League fixtures and were beaten 4-1 by France and 4-2 by Portugal, while their qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup started with an inauspicious 1-0 defeat to Slovenia.
Dalic’s side will be out to prove everyone wrong, just as they did by reaching the World Cup final in 2018, in what could be a last hurrah for Croatia’s golden generation.
Group D fixtures
All times BST
Sunday 13 June, 2pm: England vs Croatia – London
Friday 18 June, 5pm: Croatia vs Czech Republic – Glasgow
Tuesday 22 June, 8pm: Scotland vs Croatia – Glasgow
Goalkeepers: Dominik Livaković (Dinamo Zagreb), Lovre Kalinić (Hajduk Split), Simon Sluga (Luton).
Defenders: Borna Barišić (Rangers), Domagoj Bradarić (LOSC Lille), Duje Ćaleta-Car (Marseille), Joško Gvardiol (Leipzig), Josip Juranović (Legia Warszawa), Dejan Lovren (Zenit), Mile Škorić (Osijek), Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş), Šime Vrsaljko (Atlético Madrid).
Midfielders: Mateo Kovačić (Chelsea), Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Marcelo Brozović (Inter Milan), Milan Badelj (Genoa), Nikola Vlašić (CSKA Moskva), Mario Pašalić (Atalanta), Ivan Perišić (Inter Milan), Mislav Oršić (Dinamo Zagreb), Luka Ivanušec (Dinamo Zagreb).
Forwards: Josip Brekalo (Wolfsburg), Ante Budimir (Osasuna), Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), Bruno Petković (Dinamo Zagreb), Ante Rebić (AC Milan).
Ones to watch
Real Madrid may have just had a trophy-less season but Luka Modric’s continued importance to the Spanish giants was reflected by their decision to extend his contract until 2022 last week. In a team that has lacked star power since losing Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018, Modric has continued to shine alongside Toni Kross and Casemiro in driving Madrid on from midfield, and he can do a similar job for Croatia in tandem with Kovacic and Brozovic.
Luka Modric won the player of the tournament award for his performances at the 2018 World Cup
There are only four players aged 22 or younger in Croatia’s 26-man squad, but Josip Brekalo is the likeliest of any to receive significant game time. The winger is coming off the best scoring season of his career in the Bundesliga as he helped Wolfsburg to a top-four finish and Champions League qualification for the first time since 2015. A direct dribbler, Brekalo can play on either wing and has already racked up 20 appearances for Croatia, scoring five goals.
Odds to win tournament
Croatia are 33/1 to win the Euros.
In their two previous appearances at major tournaments, Croatia have topped their group without losing a match and have pulled off at least one major shock. At the World Cup in 2018 they dispatched Lionel Messi’s Argentina 3-0 while they beat Spain at the last Euros in 2016.
Their opening game against England could set the tone for their latest campaign. England have a tendency to start slowly in major tournaments, so Croatia may benefit from facing Gareth Southgate’s side straight away, but an England victory looks likely.
Croatia would then have to go for it against the Czech Republic, in what could be a fun game at Hampden, before they return to Glasgow to take on Scotland.
Zlatko Dalic will once again lead Croatia at a major tournament
At this stage, a draw could be good enough for Croatia to progress and depending on Steve Clarke’s side result against the Czech’s, both team could be happy to take a point.
The runner-up from Group D takes on the runner-up from Group E, which is likely to be Poland if top-seeds Spain secure first-place. The winner of that match would be on the same path as tournament favourites France, and Croatia can’t expect to go much further than that.
Croatia to reach the quarter-finals.
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