Croatia: Euro 2016 Dark Horses

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What a tournament it has been so far for the Balkan side. Croatia would have expected to get out of the group at the bare minimum, but few would have predicted that they would have been this impressive. Despite an embodiment of riches in midfield, their prospects in France were not seen by many as one of the teams to fear. If their performances in Group D so far are anything to go by, many will fancy Croatia as favourites to at least make the Euro 2016 Final on June 10th.

Turkey 0 – 1 Croatia

Croatia signalled their attacking intent early on in this game. Clear favourites to win, they were determined not be the victim of an opening match upset. Rakitic went close early on from Srna’s right wing cross, firing just wide in the second minute. Mandžukić and Brozović also should have done better with headers inside the area within the first twenty five minutes.

It took half an hour for Turkey to fashion their first clear cut chance, and like their opponents they displayed wasteful finishing. Gokhan Gonul fizzed a cross into the box, which was met by Ozan who was inexplicably unmarked. All he needed to do was place his header either side of Subašić to give his side a fortuitous lead. A few minutes later, Turkish striker Cenk Tosun received a booking for an elbow on Vedran Ćorluka. Although it looked accidental, it required enough bandages to leave him looking like an Egyptian mummy.

The moment of the match arrived in the 41st minute. A cross from the left flank by Rakitić was cleared by Selçuk İnan straight to Luka Modrić 25 yards from goal. The Real Madrid star hit a dipping, first-time volley that bounced over Volkan and into the bottom corner of the net. This will definitely be a contender for Goal of the Tournament.

In first half stoppage time, Turkey had a corner which was headed wide by Hakan Balta. Their fans initially thought they had equalised, as the angle made it look that way. They began the second half brightly, with Volkan Şen seeing his volley blocked by Ćorluka.

Dario Srna clipped a superb free kick onto the bar, which would have given his side an unassailable lead. Turkey had barely looked as though they had the fight to muster an equaliser. Things continued in this fashion for the remainder of the game.

Croatia were probably wondering whether they would be made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal. Srna missed a practically unguarded net while Mandžukić fired a volley over the bar from twelve yards. Perišić saw his header hit the bar, and towards the end of the game was through on goal, but denied by excellent keeping from Volkan.

Usually when a side is a goal down in the final minutes, they throw everything forward in search of an equaliser. The best Turkey could manage was a punt into the area to Balta, who was denied by Ćorluka. The defender’s head wound had seen him leave the pitch three times, and he received a kick to the head protecting this lead.

Unlike England, against Russia, Croatia’s wastefulness in front of goal did not cost them. The same could not be said of their second game.

Czech Republic 2 – 2 Croatia

Croatia began this match the same way that they did against Turkey; by wasting chances. They had spurned three great opportunities by the time they took the lead in the 39th minute. It was, however, a goal worth waiting for. Milan Badelj’s interception went straight to Perišić midway inside his own half. He went on a jinking run, unchallenged by his marker Roman Hubník and hit a well-placed shot across Petr Čech into the bottom corner. It was no more than they deserved after completely dominating the first half.

The second half began in much the same way. The Czech Republic did try to stage a fightback, but saw a volley by Ladislav Krejčí easily saved by Danijel Subašić. They then committed defensive suicide to let Croatia double their lead. Čech had looked shaky from the first whistle, and his poor short pass put Hubník under pressure. His attempt to play his side out of trouble resulted in him passing straight to Brozović, who fed the ball to Rakitić. The Barcelona star was completely unmarked, and advanced towards goal before beautifully lobbing Čech. At this point, their lead looked unassailable with an hour played.

After a spirited performance in their late opening day defeat to holders Spain, the Czech Republic now looked down and out. They were handed a huge boost a few minutes later, however, when Modrić was forced off with a muscle injury. He had been controlling the game up until that point, and it gave the Czechs a new found belief.

A couple of substitutions ended up making the difference. In the 76th minute, Tomáš Rosický floated a cross into the box which was met by the head of Milan Škoda. His precise, looping header gave Subašić no chance. This seemed to inspire trouble from the crowd. A flare was thrown onto the pitch and fighting broke out in the stands between Croatian fans.

When play resumed, with the clock ticking towards injury time, Croatian centre-back Domagoj Vida inexplicably gave away a penalty. He jumped for the ball with his hands raised high above his head, and received a booking for his troubles. Striker Tomáš Necid, who had only been on the pitch for three minutes, smashed the ball home.

Nobody could argue that the Czech Republic did not deserve a point. Similarly, nobody could argue that Croatia had paid the price for not finishing off their opponents. Although nobody expected anything less than their qualification, at this point it was by no means certain.

Croatia 2 – 1 Spain

Nobody knew exactly what was going to happen going into this game. Spain led the group with six points, Croatia trailed them on four. A defeat in this game, matched by a two goal victory for the Czechs against Turkey would see them finish third.

Croatian hearts would have sank when Álvaro Morata put Spain ahead in the 7th minute. A beautiful reverse pass by David Silva was latched onto by Cesc Fàbregas who slid the ball across Subašić. Morata tapped the ball into an empty net, despite protests that he was offside during the build-up.

Despite the absence of the injured Luka Modrić, Croatia remained fearless against their opponents. When David de Gea took one touch too many inside his own area, he conceded possession and the ball rolled to Rakitić. His superb chip hit first the bar and then the post, before being cleared by Gerard Piqué.

In the 45th minute, Perišić took Juanfran to the by-line before pulling back and floating a superb cross into the box. Nikola Kalinić, deputising for the injured Mandžukić, flicked the ball into the net from close range using the sole of his boot.

Croatia began the second half the way they had ended the first; in control. Their graft and determination looked to be paying off, complementing their superb counter-attacking skills. They almost took the lead when De Gea, not having his greatest game, almost gifted a goal. Fortunately for the goalkeeper, his weak punch was not punished as Rakitić hit his shot straight at him.

Spain were awarded a dubious penalty when Silva was adjudged to have been fouled by Šime Vrsaljko. Replays showed that he barely touched him. Sergio Ramos stepped up and promptly saw his penalty saved by Subašić. Nobody noticed that the goalkeeper was at least two yards off his line when he dived to stop the shot.

With three minutes remaining Srna played the ball upfield to Kalinić, who slid the ball to Perišić breaking into the box. The winger capped another fantastic performance with the winning goal from an angled shot. On first inspection, it seemed that de Gea might have done better with the shot, a daisy-cutter. The replay suggested that he may have saved with his foot had the ball not gotten a sight deflection. It could be argued, however, that he should have saved it with his hands. Not that anyone with any affiliation towards Croatia cared.

Perišić received a yellow card for removing his shirt, but his jubilation was understandable. His goal had won Croatia the match and the group.

Croatia: Euro 2016 Dark Horses

So far, their journey to the knockout stages could hardly have gone any better, with seven points from a possible nine and plenty of attacking football to match. While it’s true that their defence doesn’t exactly look impenetrable, Croatia certainly make up for this going forward.

Mario Mandžukić is usually his country’s first choice striker, but Kalinić will feel hard done by if he is dropped for their next game. He scored one and set up another against Spain, whereas Mandžukić has so far missed a number of chances in the two games he has played.

So far it has been Croatia’s brilliant midfielders that have shone at this tournament, particularly Perišić and Rakitić. They will also be hoping that Luka Modrić’s injury isn’t too serious, as he is instrumental in everything they do.

The fact that Croatia topped Group D means that the draw for the knockout rounds has been fairly kind to them. They will now face Portugal on June 25th, and their main focus must be to keep Cristiano Ronaldo quiet. After a couple of muted performances in the opening two games, he woke up in the final group game against Hungary to score a brace. If Croatia can nullify the threat of the Real Madrid man, they should have too much for the Portuguese.

A victory on Saturday will see them face the winner of Switzerland and Poland. Neither of these sides can be described as pushovers, but Croatia would surely fancy their chances against either team. Should they reach the semi-finals, their opponents will be either Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary or Belgium. Any side that reaches this stage has to be taken seriously, but they will be happy with the path ahead.

Croatia cannot face one of the usual favourites, such as Germany, Italy or France until the Final itself. They have already beaten Spain, winners of the last two tournaments, and the way they played in that game suggests they fear nobody.

Croatia have already ditched the label of surprise package, and are now seen as genuine contenders. It remains to be seen whether they can be tournament winners, but they have the tools and the talent to make it happen. Anybody who did place a bet on them to be outright tournament winners might be feeling quite confident right now. Croatia as favourites is no longer the unrealistic prospect it might have seemed prior to Euro 2016.