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May 25, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Croatia

Group A | Brazil | Mexico | Cameroon


Team DNA

Coming from a country with a population of less than five million people, the Croatian football team have established themselves as regulars on the big stage.

The technically gifted nation has produced some skillful and attractive players, and this generation is not an exception. Enjoyable, attractive football -- that is what one can expect from Croatia, and it is what they more or less deliver.

Starting scenario

Kovac prefers a 4-2-3-1 system, even though his selection of holding midfielders is poor. However, he relies on the quality of Modrić and Rakitić, hoping that winning the ball early and a lot of movement without the ball can be the solution. One thing is worth mentioning: Mandžukić is suspended for the Brazil match after receiving a red card during the second playoff match against Iceland.

History

Croatia officially established their independence from Yugoslavia after qualifying began for the 1994 World Cup, meaning they'd have to wait for 1998 before they could try to earn a spot. The Croatians made quite the debut, reaching the semifinals and losing a close 2-1 match against host France. (They later edged Netherlands by the same score to finish third overall.)

They went out in the first stage in 2002 and 2006, and did not qualify in 2010.

How they reached Brazil

For most of qualification, it looked like the Croatians were trying to find the most difficult way to get to Brazil.

After good performances at the 2012 Euros, where they gave Spain and Italy a hard time in the group stage, Croatia replaced manager Slaven Bilic with another former West Ham player and experienced pundit, Igor Stimac. The former defender was strong on words, but the team's performances were near terrible under his guidance; he changed the system and starting XI in almost every match, making team look disorganized and ineffective.

A win over rival Serbia in Zagreb in March 2013 momentarily disguised all of Stimac's wrong moves, but he couldn't hide the World Cup qualifying table -- Belgium topped Group A, nine points ahead of Croatia.

The fact that Serbia was a subpar squad and Scotland woke up too late saved Croatia, but not Stimac. He was sacked after a second loss to Scotland and replaced with longtime national team captain Niko Kovac. Kovac, who managed the U21 team for just four matches before taking over Croatia, guided his team through playoff wins against Iceland to finish second in the group, and, if nothing else, rebuilt the atmosphere around the squad.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Croatia's first match of the World Cup is against host Brazil in Sao Paolo. It could become the Croatians' most important match, not just in sporting terms, but also from a psychological point of view.

Croatia are a moody team; a lot depends on atmosphere, and an eventual loss to Brazil, no matter how expected it is, could push things downhill for them. On the positive side, all the pressure will be on the hosts and Croatia will have a second chance if they lose. So, why not believe in an element of surprise?

Most important player

For Croatia, Luka Modrić pulls all the strings. The hopes of the nation depend on his inspiration.

The good news is, his form with Real Madrid this season has established himself as one of the squad's most important players and a top-class midfielder. What is more important for Kovac -- Modrić matured in Madrid, learning how to take responsibility and step up for the team.

To make things work, Modrić will need a huge support from fellow midfielders, especially since this team have no proper defensive midfielder and will depend a lot on their ability to keep the ball in possession.

Definition of success

With Croatia, you never know. When people expected least, they marched all the way to the World Cup semifinals in 1998 and almost ousted host France and eventually finished third overall. But when they looked like a team capable of making waves, they failed.

- Video: Croatia odds in World Cup (Australia only)

So, where are they today? Somewhere in between. Kovac builds the team's nucleus around superb individuals like Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić, and spice it up with young talents like Inter's Mateo Kovačić. Still, a lack of depth and balance could prevent them from doing big things.

Power and creativeness in the attack are often neutralized with slow and sloppy defense. The goal is to come out Group A as a runner-up, but it will not be easy against Mexico and Cameroon.

How far will Croatia go?

Round of 16.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Michael Ballack

This is a balanced team. Defender and team captain Darijo Srna gives the Croatians huge experience in the back thanks to his 110 caps. But Croatia will struggle because no one on this team has good memories from major tournaments in the past decade.

Many things are unclear right now, especially since they hired Kovac. His first two games were the playoffs against Iceland, and Croatia deserved the 2-0 aggregate win. BU, at times, it looked like it was really tough for them, especially in the scoreless draw at Iceland. It will be difficult, but they will fight for second place.

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