Croatia’s golden generation – their last chance to impress

25th June 2016, 11:27pm, Lens, Croatia vs Portugal

Croatia are on top and look most likely to score a winner, but as they chase that goal, Ivan Strinić is caught in possession and they have left few numbers back.

An irresistible counter attack and a scruffy shot-come-cross from Nani falls perfectly for Cristiano Ronaldo who is brilliantly denied by Danijel Subašić but leaves Ricardo Quaresma with a simple header from inches out, breaking over four million hearts, and shattering another opportunity this highly talented crop of players had to bring success to such a small nation.

Croatians can argue that they have had a successful national setup considering they have only been independent since 1991.

A third place finish at France 98 is the stand out achievement but they have claimed a fair few high profile scalps in major competitions too.

They knocked Germany out of the World Cup in France and beat the Dutch in the third place playoff, as well as beating Italy (2002), Germany again (2008) and Spain (2016) in group stage matches.

Expectations have risen and continue to rise considering some of the world-class talent they have at their disposal.

Luka Modrić (Real Madrid) and Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona) certainly come under that category, and the vast majority of the side play for top European outfits such as Juventus (Mario Mandžukić and Marko Pjaca), Fiorentina (Nikola Kalinić and Milan Badelj), Atletico Madrid (Šime Vrsaljko), Inter Milan (Ivan Perišić and Marcelo Brozović), Monaco (Danijel Subašić) and Real Madrid (Mateo Kovačić).

With no obvious favourites to win Euro 2016, Croatia must really have fancied their chances.

They were irresistible at times during the group stage, Modrić’s performance against Turkey, Rakitić’s against Czech Republic and Perišić’s against Spain showed that the big name players were performing after their horror show in Brazil two years earlier, crashing out embarrassingly in the groups after a 3-1 loss to Mexico.

Niko Kovać kept his job after the debacle but left in 2015 to manage Eintracht Frankfurt. Ante Čačić stepped in to lead the side in France as the biennial dark horses looked to make history.

A late capitulation against the Czechs prevented Croatia from a 100% record in Group D, topping the group ahead of Spain, setting them up with a Last 16 tie against a so far underwhelming Portugal side.

A forgettable game, to put it kindly, was settled by that Quaresma goal after 117 minutes and left the Croatians thinking what may have been, especially had Domagoj Vida’s looping effort dropped in instead of an inch wide in the 121st minute.

It would turn out to be national captain and legend Darijo Srna’s 134th and final game for his country (68th as captain), an international career spanning 14 years, representing his country in six major tournaments, three of which he captained them in.

Legendary status which can only be comparable with all-time top scorer Davor Šuker. As if it being your last ever tournament and then getting knocked in such a manner wasn’t enough, Srna lost his father the same day Croatia beat Turkey in the group stage.

He flew home for the funeral, and returned to lead his country out against the Czechs, before bursting into floods of tears during the national anthem.

The entire squad was crestfallen as the Portuguese wheeled away in celebration in that Last 16 encounter, a feeling felt by Srna at Euro 2008 when Semih Şentürk cancelled out Ivan Klasnić’s 119th minute goal in the 122nd minute before going on to knock Croatia out on penalties.

But Euro 2016 was just another disappointment when you look at the bigger picture. For a country with so many high profile players, more is expected.

Modrić has taken over Srna’s role as captain and they currently sit top of their 2018 World Cup qualification group including Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and UEFA newcomers Kosovo.

After drawing 1-1 with Turkey in the opening qualifier, they beat Kosovo 6-0 away in neighbouring Albania which has led to four successive victories, including a 1-0 win at home to Ukraine last week.

The 2018 World Cup may well be this generation’s last chance to write themselves into the history books.

By the time the next major competition comes around in 2020, Rakitić will be 32, Modrić, Mandžukić and Vedran Ćorluka will be 34 and Subašić will be 35.

With the spine of the team getting on, Croatians will be hoping youthful prospects Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Marko Rog (Napoli), Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen) and a couple more live up to their much hyped potential to replace the superstars of the current squad, and maybe, just maybe, add a star above that red and white chequered badge.

The Author

Andrew Delaney

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