World Cup 2018 team preview: Croatia's golden generation has one last chance

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group D is Croatia.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and return as all 32 team previews and eight group previews roll in.

Outlook

Odds to win Group D: 32.3%
Odds to advance: 75%
Odds to win World Cup: 2.9%
Elo rank: 17
Yahoo Sports power rank: 12

Our writers say: The men with the greatest jerseys in sports are also confounding. They have a midfield that most every other team in the tournament would envy. Elsewhere, they’re fair to average. But with a core that has a wealth of experience, a dawning realization that its run will be up soon and a manageable group, Croatia could make a surprise run to the quarterfinals – or possibly further. Leander Schaerlaeckens

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Luka Modric will be part of an outstanding Croatia midfield at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)
Luka Modric will be part of an outstanding Croatia midfield at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 13th (8 as Yugoslavia)
Best World Cup finish: 3rd place (1930 as Yugoslavia, 1998)
2014 finish: Group stage (1-0-2)
Qualifying: Finished second behind Iceland in Group I, beat Greece in playoff
Schedule: Nigeria (Saturday, June 16, 3 p.m., FS1), Argentina (Thursday, June 21, 2 p.m., Fox), Iceland (Tuesday, June 26, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

Squad

Manager: Zlatko Dalic
Captain: Luka Modric (M)
Top players: Modric, Ivan Rakitic (M), Ivan Perisic (M), Marcelo Brozovic (M), Mateo Kovacic (M), Mario Mandzukic (F)
Full 23-man (or preliminary) squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: Just look at the players in the projected starting lineup. Or, if you’re unfamiliar with the names, look at their clubs: Monaco; Atletico Madrid, Besiktas, Liverpool, Sampdoria; Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid; Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus. There’s a Real Madrid, a Napoli, a Bayer Leverkusen, a Hoffenheim, a Fiorentina and an Everton on the bench. Croatia, especially in midfield, is immensely talented for a team not widely considered a contender.

Why they’ll lose games: There’s a reason it’s not considered a contender, though. There’s a reason it couldn’t finish above Iceland in qualifying. Its attack, at times, can be weirdly disjointed. There’s no defined identity or tactical approach. Those are the exact type of problems that could leave Croatia vulnerable to Nigeria’s potent counter or Iceland’s resolute defensive blockade (again).

How they’ll play: Through midfield and out to Perisic, with Mandzukic acting almost as a wide striker, similar to the role he plays for Juventus. Or, if he plays up top, Croatia can load up its midfield even more, and rely on Modric and Rakitic to pick opponents apart. It’s often wary about pressing too high, however, for fear of exposing an aging center back pairing.

Projected lineup (4-3-3): Danijel Subasic; Sime Vrsaljko, Demagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Strinic; Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric; Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic, Mario Mandzukic.

Kalinic is one of a few options up top. Andrej Kramaric is his main competition. Kovacic likely won’t be able to find his way into the stacked midfield, but could if Rakitic or Brozovic is pushed wide. And even Brozovic might not start, with Milan Badelj instead operating as a single-pivot behind Modric and Rakitic.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: Remember the ugly Euro 2016 scenes, when a subsection of Croatia fans showered the field with flairs and pyrotechnics? That was the foremost example of in-fighting in Croatian soccer. Some fans hate the federation. Politicians are involved, to the detriment of everyone. The team is caught in the crosshairs, and it often feels like the players are battling tooth and nail for each other, but not for anybody else. That certainly isn’t the best dynamic heading into a World Cup.

Why to root for them: The players deserve better than the circus around them. And this is probably the golden generation’s last shot to shine on the global stage.

Why to root against them: Those peripheral figures who aren’t helping don’t deserve to derive pleasure from the team’s success.

If you’re going to watch one game … The Argentina showdown will feature more quality than the vast majority of the 48 group games.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

More soccer from Yahoo Sports:
2018 World Cup preview hub
How Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit
FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
Jurgen Klinsmann, Bruce Arena open up about USMNT qualifying failure
Ramadan dilemma for World Cup-bound Muslim players: faith or football?

What to Read Next

Back