On Thursday, hundreds of millions will tune in to the World Cup’s opening ceremony and curtain raiser; Brazil v Croatia. For Brazilians, it will be the glorious homecoming of the World Cup to its greatest nation and a chance to banish the demons of 1950- the only other time Brazil has hosted the World Cup, when they were stunned in the final by Uruguay. However, for their opponents, it is the perfect opportunity to re-establish themselves as a feared side and prove that they can go further than what it is being predicted (last-16 at best).
Amidst the feverish expectations of Brazil once again rubbing shoulders with giants such as Germany, Italy and Argentina, their opponents in Group A have gone largely under the radar. The reality is though, barring some footballing catastrophe, that Brazil will comfortably progress through their group that pits them against Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. Arguably, the strongest of that trio is Croatia. Perhaps not as strong as in 1998 when they reached the dizzying heights of the semi-finals and Davor Suker went home with the Golden Shoe, the Croatians under new boss Niko Kovac look to their terrifying playmaker axis as the biggest hope they have to rock Brazil in the tournament opener.
Due to the absence of Mario Mandzukic, the top-scorer in qualifying, through suspension (he was sent off in their play-off against Iceland), the attacking threat will largely come from Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Playmaking maestro’s, Modric and Rakitic will thrive in the “4-2-3-1 come 4-1-4-1” described by Kovac. During Croatia’s sluggish qualifying campaign that saw them fail in a bid to gain automatic qualification, Igor Stimac destroyed morale and confused the players with his incessant tinkering of tactics and shape. There was zero cohesion and Croatia’s momentum suffered badly as a result. What Kovac has done has restored tactical responsibility, intelligence and a sense of leadership to the side. This leadership quality has stayed with Kovac after he was the country’s captain and talisman under the popular manager, Slaven Bilic, at the 2006 finals.
Kovac’s lack of managerial experience did not deter the players from placing their trust in him and so far it has paid off reasonably well. The shape he has restored to the team will allow Modric, Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, Inter Milan’s rising star, to gain plenty of possession for Croatia and feed the lone striker, most likely to be Eduardo, the former Arsenal man, or Nikita Jelavic, who still plays in the Premier League for Hull City.
Croatia know their limitations. In terms of technical ability, star power and muscle, they don’t quite match up to Brazil but they will utilise this by playing on the counter. Croatia’s lack of muscle in midfield means that attempting to go toe-to-toe with Brazil’s Paulinho and Ramires would be a thankless, and ultimately, pointless task. What Croatia do have, however, is speed and cleverness. Their team is packed with smart players that can make use of the little chances they will have in front of goal. Rakitic, for one, is blessed with an array of attacking qualities. Fresh off a stellar season with Sevilla, where he helped guide them to Europa League success, he has rapidly developed into one of the hottest properties in European football and reports are claiming that he is on the verge of completing a big-money transfer to Spanish giants, Barcelona. Whether or not he remains at Sevilla throughout the summer, however, will not affect his importance to the national team.
Rakitic has a brilliant range of passing and an eye for goal, having bagged 15 last season for Sevilla, but is also extremely hard-working in the middle. In September, he impressed everyone in the Camp Nou with his tireless work-rate and attacking threat, scoring one and setting up another. It was perhaps the perfect audition and expression of talent for a team who looks to have won the race to sign him.
Working alongside Rakitic will be Luka Modric, arguably Croatia’s most pivotal asset. Modric is the string-puller-in-chief for his country and they will rely on his creative scheming. Modric is also coming into this year’s tournament on the back of an excellent campaign with Real Madrid. Modric struggled to impress after signing for Madrid under Mourinho but Carlo Ancelotti’s introduction of a fluid 4-3-3 has enabled Modric to dictate games in the centre along with Xabi Alonso. For Croatia, Kovac will ask Modric to play a slightly deeper role but that will not completely stunt his abilities. Once Croatia get the ball and flood forward, Modric will be able to feed the more advanced Rakitic, Kovacic and Perisic on the wing. Modric boasts a 90% passing accuracy rate for Real Madrid, which exceeds any other regular starter in the team and it is this quality that will make Croatia tick.
A lack of depth and balance in the squad coupled with a slow and sloppy defence will make wrecking Brazil’s party a difficult task but Kovac has plenty of experience and quality in the likes of Rakitic and Modric that could see them post a serious upset and provide great drama from the very beginning of the tournament.