Croatia's World Cup predictions
After four years of waiting, the time has come. Another World Cup is here, and our bloggers across all 32 competing countries have each predicted the fate that awaits their team. The country's Outlook gives a general view of its situation ahead of the tournament, while Pitfalls takes a look at any potential problems. Each blogger will also predict the top scorer and breakout star and suggest how far that nation can go.
The arrival of Niko Kovac, Croatia's former captain, at the helm of the national side brought a sea change to the atmosphere in and around the team. The players now appear to be full of confidence, and the general stance toward the squad is much more supportive than it used to be during the ill-fated reign of Kovac's predecessor, Igor Stimac.
Several players -- particularly the stars, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic -- are playing their best football, and a few others have enjoyed a late upsurge in form. Preparations were aimed at moulding them into a homogenous unit that will be more than a sum of its parts, but we won't know how successful they were until the World Cup finally kicks off.
All 32 team previews and predictions
Brazil | Cameroon | Croatia | Mexico
Australia | Netherlands | Chile | Spain
Colombia | Greece | Ivory Coast | Japan
Costa Rica | England | Italy | Uruguay
Ecuador | France | Honduras | Switzerland
Argentina | Bosnia | Iran | Nigeria
Germany | Ghana | Portugal | USA
Algeria | Belgium | Russia | South Korea
There are several issues that need addressing, but none of them looks dramatic, and there's realistic hope they can be resolved in due course. All but one, that is. The biggest problem and potential weak spot is that Croatia go into this World Cup without a proper left-back in their squad. Ivan Strinic, who has been a regular in that position, got injured, and now manager Kovac needs to improvise to make up for his absence. His most likely choice appears to be Danijel Pranjic, who is not very reliable defensively. Besides, these days he mainly plays as central midfielder for his club, Panathinaikos. Kovac needs to make sure Pranjic has what it takes to fill the position or find a player who can step up instead.
The obvious answer for that would be Mario Mandzukic, but I'm not so sure about that. Besides the fact that he can't play against Brazil due to a red card suspension, Mandzukic got used to a considerably different style of play with Bayern, and many of his goals there were scored from close range after assists from Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. He's also one of the best strikers in the world when it comes to aerial power. Croatia don't have wingers of that level, and they will probably build more through the middle and use through-balls and clever passes rather than crosses, so that might not suit Mandzukic perfectly. However, his importance for the team exceeds scoring goals, as he will be expected to do much defensive work and pressing. I think Croatia goals are more likely to be equally divided among a few players.
The up-and-coming Inter Milan starlet Mateo Kovacic could have an important role for Croatia in this tournament. The 20-year-old possesses wonderful first touch and is a great dribbler. It will be very exciting to watch him, especially in a team that already has two great playmakers in Modric and Rakitic. If Kovac decides to field a team without a "true" holding midfielder, then all three will play in the central area, with Kovacic on the tip of the midfield triangle. It would be very risky to do so, but at least Croatia would be fun to watch. Otherwise, Kovacic could be deployed to one of the wings, where his characteristics could also prove very useful for the team.
PREDICTION: Last 16
At the moment, neither Mexico nor Cameroon are better than Croatia, and the Vatreni can also give Brazil a good run for their money in the tournament opener, when all the pressure will be on the hosts. Provided Croatia don't lose heavily in that match and manage to keep their cool, they should be able to qualify for the second round as group runners-up. Then they'll probably go down to Spain -- but not without a proper fight. Regardless of the final result, I expect Croatia to leave a very good, lasting impression with their performance.