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Jun 18, 2014

Croatia find hope in teeth of despair

Croatia's Mario Mandzukic scored a brace in his first international game since returning from suspension.

One shouldn't look at victory's teeth.

In Croatia, that's an oft-used phrase among sports writers and sportsmen alike and actually a corruption of an old proverb featuring a horse and, oh, never mind. The point is, you should enjoy your win, not overanalyse it. And that is, of course, a completely wrong attitude and one that leads to a loser's mentality, because there is just as much to learn from your wins as there is from your defeats.

CameroonCameroon
CroatiaCroatia
0
4
FT
Match 18
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If you look at Croatia's 4-0 drubbing of Cameroon at the World Cup, you would find the Indomitable Lions in very poor dental health to further the analogy. They were clearly falling apart before everyone's eyes. They committed the stupidest, most obvious foul of the tournament that led to their main man Alex Song being sent off; their defensive transition was outrageously bad and allowed the Croatians a clean break every two or three minutes; and they scuffled amongst themselves on the pitch.

More than a few questions could be asked about the Vatreni's performance as well. Yes, they did obliterate Cameroon when they were a man up, they did score four goals and could have scored a couple more. But they were largely unconvincing before Song's red card and, despite getting an early lead, failed to take control over the game in the first half.

How did a team built around a core of three playmakers only manage 52 percent of ball possession in the first 45 minutes against Cameroon, who have no playmakers? Why don't they play to their strengths? Why did they attempt so many long balls in the first half, skipping the midfield where they have two superstars who have each won a continental club competition this past season? You have Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic, who has been signed by Barcelona, and you play on the counter against Cameroon?

Mario Mandzukic had a triumphant return to the Croatian lineup, netting two goals in a convincing 4-0 win vs. Cameroon.

But if you were to raise these questions in Croatia and suggest the team might not have been that good in this particular match, you are most likely to be judged a provocateur and a traitor to the nation. Croatians love their victories -- and this was their record one in a World Cup game, topping the 3-0 against Germany in 1998. Today's papers are filled with heroic epics to the team, because in Croatia, there's only euphoria and despair, nothing in between.

Luckily, team manager Niko Kovac -- born and raised in Berlin, claiming his mentality is "more German than Croatian" -- was able to find a middle ground. "There is no reason to celebrate now -- we have plenty of work to do," he said immediately after the match. Speaking to HTV, the Croatian public television station, Kovac also acknowledged that Croatia didn't start the game very well and said they allowed the opponent far too many opportunities.

"This team has the ability to play against the best ones, and we have to show that against Mexico. That match will be like a final for us. There's plenty of potential in this team, and the opponent that awaits us is very strong -- they showed that against Brazil. But we are strong, too. Mexico are big on character, unity and patriotism; but just as they're strong up front, they have their weaknesses at the back," Kovac said.

While some elements of Croatia's play against Cameroon can clearly be a cause for concern, there's more of them that could induce optimism. The players have shown extraordinary levels of fitness some passing patterns, practiced in training, were clearly visible. But above all, this convincing win can do wonders for the team's confidence -- and that could be key against Mexico.