Stanley: Don’t underestimate Croatia


Alex Morgan scored five goals and registered two assists as the US beat Thailand 13-0.

Sandeep Stanley

Croatia is the second smallest country to make the World Cup final.

The plucky Europeans came into Russia ranked 20th in FIFA’s world rankings, but their strong midfield had many tipping them to make a decent run in the tournament.

Few, however, saw the Croats going this far. After seeing off England in a tense 2-1 affair after extra time, shock reigned supreme as many registered that Croatia was actually in the World Cup final. Even I can’t believe it.

I, however, am guilty of one of the most common errors at this World Cup, an error that, despite all statements to the contrary, was a major factor in the English semifinal defeat. I am guilty of underestimating the talent of the Croatian team.

First of all, Croatia has one of the most talented midfield combinations in world football. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric has been absolutely remarkable in his box-to-box role, dropping into a defensive role and screening the back four but quick to threaten with long-range strikes. His skills in transition have been the cornerstone of Croatia’s counter-attacking play.

His bitter rival in club football, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, compliments his skills perfectly on the world stage. Where Modric combines elements of both Andres Iniesta and N’Golo Kante in his philosophy, Barcelona forged Rakitic’s style into one resembling Xavi, his predecessor at the Catalan giants.

Rakitic orchestrates the tempo of the Croatian attack, from patient and probing to blisteringly quick on the counter. He can also absorb pressure impeccably and is an equally skilled danger from outside the box as Modric.

These two alone have won matches for the Croats. In fact, the semi-final against England was a perfect encapsulation of Croatia’s strategy so far. While England went ahead early, the gulf in quality between Modric and Rakitic and the English midfield of Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson and Jesse Lingard only grew as the match went on.

Matches are won and lost in the midfield, and the gap in skill led directly to the Croatian equalizer in normal time. England looked helpless after that, and how could they not? Their forwards were getting no service because the Croatian midfield was stifling them.

England certainly deserve credit for holding out until extra time, but it was no surprise that they all but capitulated when Juventus target man Mario Mandzukic slipped off an utterly exhausted John Stones to seal the win for Croatia.

It must be said that Croatia’s path to the final was easier than France’s. Their side of the bracket featured an overachieving Denmark and an emotional clash with hosts Russia before their bout with the Three Lions. All three of those games also went to extra time, which consists of an extra 30 minutes added on to a match tied at the conclusion of normal time. Considering that France have seen all of their matches out without extra time, Croatia has played a full game’s worth of time more than France.

France’s midfield of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, and the phenomenal Kante are performing leagues better than any of Croatia’s past opposition. This, combined with the fact that Modric has covered the most distance of any player at the World Cup and reports that Rakitic was nursing a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit before the England match, spell trouble for the Croatians.

The fatigue of the Croatian team, combined with the outstanding depth that the French team boasts, force me to predict that Les Bleus will overcome the Vatreni in a defensively oriented game by a score of 2-0.

Still, however, Croatia pose much more of a threat to France than most would believe. While Modric’s club teammate and French defender Raphael Varane has been one of the outstanding players of the tournament, his partner, Rakitic’s club teammate Samuel Umtiti, committed some mistakes against Belgium that almost proved costly.

When pushed to extremes, Umtiti’s composure can break down and he sometimes struggles in aerial duels. Croatia will probably play Mandzukic up front to exploit this weakness; consider the fact that he stands at 6-foot-3 and Umtiti is only 6 feet tall, and Croatia’s prospects grow a little less bleak.

France must also deal with the issues that misfiring forward Olivier Giroud brings to the team. While his flaws have been largely masked throughout the tournament by the stellar performances of strike partners Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, Giroud has not had a single shot on target during the World Cup so far.

This is absolutely unacceptable. Pogba, Kante, Mbappe and Griezmann have provided him more than enough service.

Against Belgium, Giroud was presented two golden opportunities to score. One of them was especially egregious, as the Chelsea man was presented with a one-on-one chance against his club teammate Thibaut Courtois, but could not even manage to connect with the ball properly.

Croatia should not be written off so easily. Their midfield is the best that France has faced and if Modric and Rakitic sustain their form, Giroud and company will not get many opportunities to score. And when faced with the opportunity to win a World Cup, fatigue can melt away in the blink of an eye.

One thing is for sure, though: Croatia is here to stay.