Assessment: Croatia's disappointment
Croatia failed to deliver on its pre-World Cup promise, and ESPN FC blogger Aleks Holiga looks back at the highs and lows of their brief campaign.
One sentence, World Cup recap
Croatia disappointed by not playing to its strengths and bowed out having fallen apart in the key match against a really well organised Mexico side.
All team assessments
Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast | Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
Much to everyone's surprise, it wasn't any of the key players. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic all showed a somewhat average form with only a few flashes of brilliance each. The main star was Ivan Perisic -- Wolfsburg's winger who had been one of the most criticised players in the past -- who hit the form of his life just at the right moment. He was among the top three Croatia performers in all three matches and ended the tournament with two goals and an assist on his record.
His display against a lacklustre Cameroon side was particularly impressive, when he produced a brilliant assist for the first goal and scored the second with a run-and-finish that prompted some reporters to call him the "poor man's Gareth Bale". No wonder several clubs are rumoured to be in the market for Perisic, who is expected to move this summer -- at the moment, it seems that Napoli have the upper hand in the negotiations.
Dismantling Cameroon was fun to watch, but despite an early goal Croatia didn't play very well before Alex Song was sent off. After that it was only a matter of routine, because the Indomitable Lions did nothing to compensate for being a man down. Instead, the best moment has to be taking the lead in the tournament opener against the hosts, with the stadium packed with Brazilians and the whole world watching.
Truth be told, it was a very clumsy effort: Ivica Olic fired in a low cross for Nikica Jelavic, who missed the ball -- he was really awful in that game. But without him missing, it wouldn't have hit and surprised Marcelo Vieira, who scored an own goal to shock everyone. It was a fluke, but the feeling was great and it's a shame it couldn't last a little longer as Brazil soon equalised.
Most Croatians would probably say the very soft penalty given against the team by Yuichi Nishimura -- the Japanese referee had been the most hated man in the country for a day or two, before everyone moved on. Things might have turned out better for Croatia with a different call, but that was something beyond the team's control and there's no point in dwelling on it.
A true low point was the completely reckless challenge that got the young Ante Rebic sent off in the dying minutes of the Mexico clash. The winger looked lively and dangerous when he came off the bench, but after only 20 minutes on the pitch he saw red for an action that seemed to sum up all the collective frustration and negative energy. For Rebic, it raised some questions. No doubt he's very talented, but coaches have been saying for some time he was not "right in the head". Unfortunately, he did his best to prove them right.
Niko Kovac had most of us fooled with his insistence to play without a true holding midfielder, claiming that it wouldn't hamper the creativity of his playmaker axis Modric-Rakitic, which the team was built around. We expected that to mean Croatia would play attractive, possession-based football and take control over games. They ended up threatening on the counter and through long passes because the two stars were too far from the action.
The main lesson for the future is no matter which tactics you choose you have to use your star man properly, which wasn't the case in Brazil, especially with Rakitic who played as the deepest midfielder. Also, the weak links (Stipe Pletikosa and Danijel Pranjic) had a terrible tournament, so it may be time to retire some of the old guard, bring in some more fresh blood and rethink the whole approach.