Can Croatia be the surprise package at the 2018 World Cup?

Croatia as an independent country is not even quarter of a century old; therefore it is no surprise that they do not have an extensive history at the FIFA World Cup. However, they astonished the whole world and their own fans in equal measure during their debut at the highest stage on world football in 1998 in France when they went all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup. After finishing behind Argentina in Group H with two wins and a solitary loss that came at the hands of the group winners, the Croats faced Romania in their round of 16 clash and prevailed 1-0 courtesy of a Davor Suker penalty in the first half added time.

Croatia caused a major stir in their last eight fixture as they hammered the giants Germany 3-0 with the help of a goal apiece from Robert Jarni, Goran Vlaovic and Suker. They were up against the hosts for a spot in the summit clash, but Les Bleus came from a goal down to triumph 2-1 courtesy of a brace from Lilian Thuram at the Stade de France to oust the spirited Croatians and booked themselves a place in the final against Brazil.

In the third place playoff, Miroslav Blazevic’s men defeated the Netherlands 2-1 with a goal each by Robert Prosinecki and Suker to take home the bronze medal at their first attempt at a World Cup. A remarkable feat for a team that became independent barely seven years ago.

The Croats qualified for the next two editions of the quadrennial extravaganza, but could never progress beyond the group stage. They missed the bus to South Africa after failing to qualify, but returned to the world stage in Brazil in the summer of 2014. They were placed in a group that also comprised of the hosts apart from Mexico and Cameroon. They gave the Brazilians a tough fight in the group opener, but a series of howlers from the referee meant that the game ended 3-1 in favour of the hosts, putting Croatia in a difficult spot for qualification to the knockouts. A comprehensive win over Cameroon was followed by a 3-1 loss to Mexico, meaning the Europeans finished third in their group and missed out on reaching the round of 16.

Croatia have successfully qualified for the European Championship due to be held in France this summer and will be eager to do as well as they did the last they went to France for a major tournament.

Looking two years ahead to the World Cup in Russia, Croatia are a good shout to be the surprise package at the tournament. They have assembled a strong midfield with the likes of Real Madrid duo Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic as well as Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic – who was also voted the Croatian Player of the Year in 2015 for his heroics for the Catalans outfit as well as his national team. They also have the Inter Milan midfielder Ivan Perisic to call upon.

Up front Mario Mandzukic will be holding fort and is amongst the very best forwards in world today. Defence could be an area of concern for the side as Dejan Lovren, Vedran Corluka, and Tin Jedvaj aren’t exactly the defenders that exude authority or dominance over their rivals. Nevertheless, Croatia have a strong enough side to spring a surprise or two in Russia in two years’ time.