The FIFA World Cup Runthrough Thread #4 For 6/9/14: #17 Croatia
Srna - Levoren - Corluka - Pranjic
Modric - Rakitic
Perisic Kovacic Olic
After easily being dismissed by a rising Belgian side, Croatian Football Federation President Davor Suker had a swift decision to make. Manager Igor Stimac, despite leading the team to a playoff spot in a tough group that also featured Serbia, Wales, and Scotland, presided over a late qualification poor run of form that was too much for the federation to endure. So out did Stimac go and in did Niko Kovac, promoted quickly from the Under-21 side, into his first senior managerial spot at just 42.
It was quite the tenuous time to appoint Kovac into the big boss status ahead of a tricky playoff tie against an emerging, young Iceland side. But Kovac was able to muster it in comfortable fashion to send Croatia back to the World Cup after a disappointing 2010 hiatus.
With that honor, Kovac is the second youngest manager in the tournament, only a month older than Ivory Coast tactician Sabri Lamouchi. And already his range of sagacity will be firmly under fierce examination, as he deals in the aftermath of key injuries while preparing for being in the World Cup opener against none other than the hosts.
The buildup losses of underrated left back Ivan Strinic, Hamburg product Ilicevic, and the smooth Niko Kranjcar have been added to the stupidity exhibited last October by suspended captain Josip Simunic for his neo-Nazi chants after the second leg vs Iceland. Kovac simply can't afford any more injuries to his squad.
A blow to the star trio of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivica Olic would automatically (in this journalist' perspective) rule out their chances to progress to the Round of 16. All three truly had terrific seasons. Modric will no longer be questioned like he was by Real Madrid fans in his first year after being a huge part of their double winning, La Decima campaign. Mandzukic, despite clashing repeatedly with Pep Guardiola and seemingly on the way out of Bayern Munich, did little to harm his elite goal scoring reputation for the German powerhouse. And Olic still showed he is one of the game's most unheralded poachers by being so integral to Wolfsburg's Europe League 5th place finish.
Now a 4th man has entered the galactic realm of Modric, Manduzkic, and Olic in Ivan Rakitic, who was Sevilla's top player in a career year for the 26-year-old. His smooth dribble, passing, and occasionally goal scoring production has led to Barcelona now securing his services for next club season. It's quite the rise from being mired in the Schalke wilderness a few seasons ago for Rakitic.
Also displaying plenty of quality this season in Wolsburg with Olic was Ivan Perisic, who added to a good stint at Borussia Dortmund with a 12 goal season for the Volkswagon outlet. And just when you thought they didn't have any more dexterous operators in the midfield, 20-year-old Mateo Kovacic displayed at the end of the season with Inter Milan his massive ability. It was fitting that Kovacic had his breakout party in the final match of the legendary Javier Zanetti's career, with three tremendous assists in a 4-1 victory over Lazio, signaling maybe an indirect passing of the torch to the next Nerazzurri icon.
But with the squad down those aforementioned four key members, only the effective Nikica Jelavic is a firm danger man on the bench, with 20-year-old Ante Rebic's game too nascent while the 31-year-old Eduardo too damaged by so many injuries in his career. It is a great return home for the former Arsenal man to the nation of his birth and development, but something terribly must go wrong to the starters if he gets significant time. The same holds true with 21-year-olds Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Mocinic, who are only going to Brazil because of the injuries. 30-year-old defensive midfielder Ognjen Vukojevic and 27-year-old Brazilian born Sammir will also appear for Croatia only if something happens to Modric or Rakitic in the middle.
And it's the backline where any further starting subtraction would be devastating for Kovic to deal with. Thankfully for him, they've had ample time to prepare for both Strinic and Simunic's absence, as the left back had been dealing with a number of injuries with his hamstring for months. It lead to Danijel Pranjic coming out of his early international retirement at 26 two years ago to help his nation when required.
That inclusion of Pranjic is a vital cover, but giving Southampton solid young centerback Dejan Lovren a partner to replace Simunic is still a mystery. It seems Vedran Corluka, still with a lot left in him at just 28, will slide from the outside and return to the lineup as the other centerback. Well traveled Panathinaikos centerback Gordon Schildenfeld at 6'3 is a decent third option, but has little to no chemistry to partner with the 24-year-old Lovren. 113 caps right back captain Darijo Srna and 111 capped goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa have enough experience to try and communicate and structure the defense as best as possible (Pletikosa has a good backup in Danijel Subasic, who is the clear first choice at Monaco). But the challenge for Levoren will start off under intense pressure against Neymar & company in front of the rabid home support.
But even if they are engulfed in Brazilian attack flames in the opener, Croatia still has plenty of quality and tactical know how to still progress to the knockout stages over Mexico and Cameroon. How Kovac manages the team during and after the Brazilian match will determine if he has the qualities of a good international manager at just age 42.
Under The Radar, Key Injuries
Perisic: While Modric and Rakitic are garnering all the headlines, and Kovacic being listed as among the best young player lists throughout online, it is the overlooked Wolfsburg man who could certainly steal all the attention.