A captain traditionally is the last to abandon ship, though Croatia is not your traditional ship. When the going got tough former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader fled with his collection of watches and “gifts”, only to be humiliatingly hauled back under an extradition order. Slaven Bilic will not be lovingly or aggressively hauled back anytime soon. His decision to up stumps for the lucrative locale out in east Moscow means he is another lame duck coach with a less than clear surrounding. The surprising lack of humility or even self-awareness shown by a supposedly attuned person has not set the “Vatre” (Fire) off on the best track. That Croatia still feel aggrieved at losing the right to host the 2012 championships and this ripples from the media to the masses. A desire to “put it right” as one pundit stated is allied with overbearing nationalistic fervour which follows the countries sides or individuals who have the potential for success. Given that the big hope for an Olympic medal, high jumper Blanka Vlasic, looks almost certain to miss out on London, the pressure is on to lift the trophy July 1st. So what about the personnel.
Keeping goal for the Croatians is Russia-based, brittle Stipe Pletikosa. Stipe, or Stiopa as he’s known in Russia. Having been linked with such European heavyweights as Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, each time something seemed close the rug was pulled. He eventually ended up at Spartak Moscow and Shaktar Donetsk and did manage to finally sign, on loan, with an English club, letting in 4 goals in a Carling Cup loss on his only appearance for Spurs in a year-long loan in 2010-11. Despite possessing terrific reflexes the Split native has always lacked the personality to impose himself at clubs though at international level he’s put in some truly world class performances. Now he’s being pushed for a starting spot by Monaco’s Subasic, also an ex-Hajduk Split stopper. The Zadar-born player has shown impressive improvement and while Stipe was a teen phenom (capped at every level up to senior), his back up has battled for success and may yet start.
The 3rd keeper is the favoured Dinamo Zagreb player Ivan Kelava. At 24 he has some good form behind him but was a surprise for many fans to get the nod. The fact that the other 3rd choice, and also uncapped, operator plays with Hajduk Split (making it 3 Hajduk players in one spot) didn’t look likely to conform with the politics of the HNS (Croatian FA). The giant Goran Blazevic has been one of the best keepers in the domestic league though the authorities were furious with him for cancelling his contract with former club Sibenik to move a 40minute drive south along the Dalmatian coast to Hajduk. Naturally the legal fact that he (and his colleagues) had gone without wages for 7 months didn’t factor into officialdom, though with Pletikosa on the wane, Blazevic still has time.
In front of the FC Rostov keeper Pletikosa will stand a rather dubious collection of defenders. 3-card trick hero from 2006, Australian Josip Simunic has returned to wind down his career at Dinamo Zagreb with a series of lessening returns since last year. An outstanding defender at times in the Bundesliga, his main drive is to win 100 caps, though it shows the lack of depth at centre back for Bilic. Speedy Daniel Pranjic will start with little opposition, despite not setting Bayern alight. He can be dangerous going forward though diminishing returns could have him lose his spot if things go against them. Powerful Gordon Schildenfeld has imposed himself on the national team and after a promotion winning season with Eintracht Frankfurt, will be at home at the highest level. A star from his late-teens he could well move to a bigger club in the transfer window. Ivan Strinic, who plays in the Ukrainian top flight with Dnipro, is an option at left-back but has shown to be a liability when turned or facing a tricky winger. Meanwhile Domagoj Vida, who was a flop in the Bundesliga with Leverkusen, is back safely with Dinamo and would be an unwelcome (for Croatian fans) starter at centre or right back.
Bosnian Vedran Corluka will be looked to for inspiration at the heart of the defence, though a loss of form in the last year is causing concerns. It looked for a while that he would become a real star when signing for Manchester City, and then again after some solid outings with Spurs, but a loan-to-sell deal with Leverkusen didn’t quite work out and he is battling to regain lost ground and a starting spot at White Hart Lane. Finally Israel-based Jurica Buljat can be called on to step in at centre back and while he is not the fastest on his feet, technically he can hold his own, it is unlikely he’ll start but should a odd run out. The loss of Bosnian Dejan Lovren has hit Croatia hard as the Lyon man would have been pushing to start, which can only be a positive for Irish fans as on form he is a rock.
The Croatian midfield, on paper, does seem to match with the best in Europe, however football is not played on paper. Skipper Dario Srna has deserved a bigger stage than the Ukrainian High League to win honours. A sublime passer, hard worker and rugged tackler, he is the only complete midfielder Croatia have. Harnessing him is the key to subduing his team mates. Luka Modric’s loss of energy has been alarming at times, though the Croatian-Serb midfielder can be devastating. If let loose he can beat teams on his own and he can stand up to hard tackles. Given space the Spurs player can destroy opponents. Clubmate Niko Kranjcar was seen as the next big thing out of Croatia and switching agents and clubs, from Dinamo to Hajduk, in January 2005, was supposed to precede a move to Italy, however he ended up in Portsmouth. Now a bit part player at Spurs he has the appearance of a player living on past promise. German Ivo Illicevic (of Bosnian parents) has begun to challenge for a spot, though with a lack of experience at a high level he is likely to be an impact sub to chase a game.
Tomislav Dujmovic has proven to be a capable ballwinner in the Russian Premier and now in Spain (on loan to Zaragoza) and at 31 will add a cool head and experience.Supporting Srna and Modric, while sweeping in front of the defence should be his role. Swiss Ivan Rakitic played for his country of birth before switching to his father’s nationality. His career has been impressive to date, moving from Basel to Schalke to Sevilla, though almost comic inconsistency brings both cheers and jeers from fans. He can be dynamic yet lazy, skilful yet clumsy. Though if he catches fire he can be a real star this summer.
Dinamo Kiev’s Vukojevic adds power to midfield though he might miss out to Dortmund’s starlet Ivan Perisic (despite sharing the same agency). Making up the numbers is Milan Badelj who has the ability to turn matches though is untested at a higher level. Again, on paper, this midfield can match Spain, Germany or Holland, though muzzling Srna, isolating Modric and pressuring Dujmovic means Croatia can be held by a well marshalled side. Put them on the back foot and this midfield will be suspect, without pressure they can destroy the opposition.
The loss of new Wolfsburg striker Ivica Olic was greeted with joy by many, though while Olic has undoubted talent, he is not a huge danger. Of less interest was the omission of German-born ex-Bolton player Klasnic whose relationship with the management was less love-hate than meh-meh. Nikica Jelavic’s arrival from Rangers livened up Everton’s attack with the Bosnian showing real form to the end of the season. How he will link with, or play, ahead of Dnipro’s Nikola Kalinic remains to be seen. Having been described as his agent as “the future of Croatian football”, Kalinic didn’t shine at Blackburn and while he is a proven goalscorer, doing so at the highest level consistently has eluded him.
Mario Mandzukic is a clear 4th in the pecking order of strikers and only for Bosnian-born Mladen Petric’s release from Hamburg, he might not be in the squad. Further there was surprise in many quarters when space was not made for the starlet Ante Vukusic of Hajduk Split, though his refusal to be with a local agent seems to have hindered his full cap prospects within the current set up. As the top Croatian goalscorer this past season it was expected he’d be in the squad, though at 21 he has time on his side.
The final forward is the Brazilian Eduardo, now playing his trade with Shaktar in Ukraine. A prolific few seasons with Dinamo Zagreb saw a big money move to Arsenal come about in 2007 and for a while his form looked ominous for the 2008 World Cup. A broken ankle and leg in a league match with Birmingham City ruled him out for 1 week short of a year. Another season was all he got at Arsenal before moving to Shaktar, where he has had relatively modest returns with last season being his poorest in a decade. His inclusion (despite scoring 3 times in qualifying and once in the final warm up against Norway) is more indicative of the lack of depth for Croatia up front.
So how does this team stack up against Croatian teams of the past? Despite some pundit’s view of them as being “dark horses”, they are lacking in key positions with the younger players not as good as those they are replacing. The time for a clear out was after the last World Cup, though with so much at stake in financial and contractual terms, Bilic and his assistants stuck with what they knew. They could prove to be a very much overhyped team, with little substance to back up claims made outside of Croatia, though as always the fans at home will firmly believe they have a divine, almost destined right, to rule. Unless they beat Ireland in the opening match in Poznan, it could be a difficult tournament for them, with a coach who doesn’t want to be there and players who are not in form. The most interesting statistic, and one which probably won’t be mentioned much, is the number of non-Croatia born players (6 of 23) in the squad. It has remained a constant since the mid-1990’s given the number of emigrants claiming rights to a passport from the distant past. It is exactly the same number as Ireland, not counting Gibson and McLean, so at least we’re matching them before kick-off. As Shelbourne proved in 2004’s Champions League matches, getting stuck in could be Ireland’s best way to grab more than just a valuable point. Croatia will be hot or cold, with them there is no middle ground.