Two-time quarter-finalists Croatia head to France in the throes of transition – their coach, Ante Cacic, has only managed a handful of games – but that has not deterred hipsters everywhere from earmarking Vatreni (“The Blazers”) as one of the dark horses for this summer’s European Championship.
It’s not exactly hard to see why. Led by 129-cap skipper Darijo Srna, Croatia’s squad is liberally sprinkled with footballing royalty. Midfield maestro Luka Modric will link up with Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandžukic. Throw in fellow Galactico Mateo Kovacic and you’ve got one of the most formidable attacking line-ups in the competition.
Cacic has sprung one or two surprises in his squad selection too. Many an eyebrow has been raised by the omission of Dejan Lovren, who is finally beginning to find his feet at Anfield. The Dynamo Zagreb production line – this is the same club, remember, that launched the careers of Modric, Kovacic, and latterly Alen Halilovic (who is beginning to make waves in La Liga himself) – has generously offered up a couple more live-wires to the senior fold, Marko Rog and Ante Coric.
Despite changing their manager, qualifying was largely plain sailing for the Croatians – they suffered only one defeat, a 2-0 reverse in Oslo – but things often prove a little trickier in the competition proper. Having failed to progress beyond the group stage in their previous two tournaments, Euro 2016’s expanded format will be a welcome change.
If early momentum really is key to staying the distance, Cacic could not have hoped for a better start, taking on an unfancied Turkey side in Group D’s Parisian curtain-raiser.
In the long run, you worry about their squad depth, particularly among the forward ranks where the somewhat streaky Nikola Kalinic would likely deputise in the event of a Mandžukic injury. However they do boast a collection of midfielders that can rival those of Spain and Germany.
If you were looking for an omen, Croatia’s best ever tournament – a third-placed berth in the 1998 World Cup – was also achieved on French soil. This time, Vatreni fans will travel more in hope than expectation, but one cliché rings true.