Croatia are a team often labelled ‘dark horses’ going into a major tournament. Not good enough to be considered one of the big guns but dangerous enough for people to be cautiously optimistic about their chances.
The ‘dark horses’ tag is usually burdened on a team with limited previous tournament success but have a crop of talented, usually young players yet to achieve anything of note on the international stage. Think Belgium in the 2014 World Cup and Chile in 2010. Croatia go into Euro 2016 having failed to live up to their tag on more than one occasion. Having failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2010, Croatia crashed out at the group stage at Euro 2012 before repeating the feat in 2014 on the world stage. Although their group wasn’t the easiest in 2012, containing both finalists Italy and Spain, their performance in 2014 was thoroughly underwhelming as they were comfortably beaten 3-1 by an unspectacular Mexico in their qualification decider.
Although Croatia’s midfield is packed with talent and oozes class, their problem has often been a lack of fluency and incoherent defending. Euro 2016 is Croatia’s chance to put it right, and make a telling impact on a major tournament like they did at the World Cup in 1998.
With players like Modric (30) and Mandzukic (30) entering the twilight of their careers, there’s no guarantee they will be at their best two years down the line. This tournament will probably be the last time that the supremely gifted duo of Modric and Rakitic will be playing alongside each other at their peak. This represents the best chance to replicate their European successes with their clubs on the international stage.
One difference which could aid their chances is the expanded format of the tournament this year. The expanded format at this years edition has come in for plenty of criticism, however it should give teams like Croatia more of a fighting chance. Although there is an additional game to win, qualification from the group is far simpler as 4 out of 6 teams qualify for the knockout round in 3rd place. This means that teams are allowed room for a slow start and can build momentum as the tournament progresses despite a few slip-ups early on. This could be crucial for a side whose players are assembled from a variety of different European leagues and could take a few games to fully gel.
Croatia as a footballing nation are similar to Holland and France in the way that their national side is far superior than the strength of their domestic league. The majority of their squad is picked from abroad. However the key difference with Croatia is that an abundance of key players in recent years have all come from one academy, Dynamo Zagreb. Historically the Dynamo academy has never been known for producing great players, however in recent years a generation of technically gifted players have emerged. As well as producing one of Croatia’s greatest players in Luka Modric, they have been responsible for developing Niko Kranjcar, Eduardo, Dejan Lovren and Alen Halilovic. Not to mention the emergence of one of Europe’s most promising young players, Ante Coric. Most Football Manager players will be familiar with Coric, and at the age of 19, he has the potential to light up the tournament if space can be found for him in Croatia’s already impressive midfield. One of the first names on the ’10 young players to watch this tournament’ articles written in the build up to the tournament, Coric is a player in the mould of Modric however his similarity to many of the Croatia midfield means he will struggle to force his way into the starting lineup.
Few squads at this year’s tournament rely so heavily on one club as Croatia do on the 11 time straight league winners Dynamo Zagreb. No other Croatian club sides contribute to the squad bar the second and third choice keepers.
However it remains to be seen if Dynamo will keep up the production line of world-class players, or if the current squad is what will later be referred to as a ‘golden generation’. Regardless, it’s time Croatia lived up to their pre-tournament ‘dark horses’ tag, and make a mark on Euro 2016.