Zlatko Dalic's Croatia take on England - the team they beat to reach the World Cup final - on the back of a 6-0 Nations League thrashing to Spain in a match that will be played out in front of an empty stadium
After the highs of the World Cup, Croatia have crashed back down to earth with a bang
Croatia’s first match in the October international window a year ago was their manager’s last. A 1-1 draw at home to Finland was deemed so insipid, the consequences of dropped points so grave that, even though they faced a make-or-break World Cup qualifier just three days later, Ante Cacic was sacked.
A caretaker was called, and that man, Zlatko Dalic, relatively fresh from his successful 22 months at Al Ain in the UAE, at first needed to be dissuaded from thinking his summons to rescue his country was a hoax. He accepted unforgiving terms. Dalic had, at worst, just one game, and less than 48 hours preparation; if he started adequately, he would provisionally get three matches in charge.
It is worth remembering all that - how Dalic was parachuted in for a crisis; how his Croatia scrambled up to second place, behind Iceland, in their World Cup qualifying pool, and, having caught their breath, only reached Russia 2018 via a play-off victory against Greece - when you consider the sudden, thudding fall to earth the team seem to have endured in the last two months.
Were Croatia, so expertly organised and motivated by Dalic, really World Cup finalists less than three months ago? It can look like an illusion when you peer at it from the perspective of their struggles to beat Finland or Kosovo in the lead-up to that tournament, or through the lens of last month's 6-0 thrashing by Spain in their first competitive game since they left Moscow with their silver medals, runners-up at the biggest event in the sport.
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As Croatia host England in Rijeka on Friday in the Uefa Nations League, both sides six points behind Spain in their group, they seek urgent reminders that what happened through June and July was no freak.
“There are mistakes we made in Spain that need to be corrected,” says Dalic, who is concerned a landmark occasion, his team’s first match at home since the World Cup, that ought be celebratory, will seem underwhelming. The game against England will be played behind close doors, Croatia’s Uefa-imposed penalty for the incident in 2015 when a swastika symbol was cut into the grass of the pitch, visible throughout a match against Italy. It is not the first such sanction: violence around fixtures in Croatia had spectators banned from that game against Italy.
“It does seem unfair that two World Cup semi-finalists, us and England, have to play without fans,” said Dalic, who looks back on the last meeting between the two sides as a career high. Croatia came back from a goal down in Moscow in the semi-final to beat England 2-1 in extra-time, a triumph of patience and stamina. The Croatians, having qualified for the tournament in extremis, had reached the quarter-finals via a penalty shoot-out, after two hours locked at 1-1 against Denmark. They had reached their semi-final via another shoot-out against Russia, after a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes in Sochi, and they defied fatigue to score twice against France in the final, eventually beaten by a fresher, more youthful side.
Those heroics leave a weight of expectation two senior members of the squad will no longer be carrying. The versatile striker Mario Mandzukic, scorer of the winning goal against England three months ago and a goal in the final, has retired from internationals, to preserve his energies for his club, Juventus. Danijel Subasic, the bold victor in two World Cup penalty roulettes, has also announced, at 33, that his 44th cap, in Moscow, was his last.
Mandzukic leaves a significant gap, one that will not, under Dalic, be filled by Atletico Madrid’s Nikola Kalinic, an experienced leader of the line but one whose unhappiness at being used as a substitute led to disagreements in Russia, the player leaving the tournament at the group stage. On Friday, duties up front will likely divide between Ante Rebic, the energetic Eintracht Frankfurt forward and Andrej Kramaric, of Hoffenheim, supported on the left flank by Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic.
The stellar midfield pair Luka Modric, 33, and Ivan Rakitic, 30 should both start, and intend to be part of Croatia’s plans at Euro 2020, by which time Dalic hopes to have progressed the careers of players like the midfielders Marko Rog, of Napoli, and Mario Pasalic, who has spent the last four seasons loaned to various clubs by Chelsea, and striker Marko Pjaca, of Fiorentina. The flourishing of Mateo Kovacic, the 24-year-old midfielder on loan at Chelsea from Real Madrid, in the Premier League this season is one promising sign for Croatia’s medium-term future.
Injuries, notably to midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, the Inter midfielder, and his club colleague, right-back Sime Vrsaljko weaken Dalic’s options this evening. With goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic unfit, an inexperienced gloveman, probably Dinamo Zagreb’s Dominik Livakovic, will be charged with keeping England's set-piece specialists at bay in an eerily empty, anti-climactic Rujevica stadium.