Nations League table-toppers Croatia have both form and World Cup pedigree behind them… but can age-defying superstar Luka Modric lead the 2018 finalists one step further in Qatar?
- Croatia fell just short of World Cup glory in 2018 after losing the final to France
- Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric will look to take Croatia one step further in Qatar
- The Croats finished ahead of both Denmark and France in the Nations League
- World Cup 2022 news LIVE: Follow all the latest from Qatar as it happens HERE
Underestimate Croatia at your peril.
Despite their relatively young history at the World Cup, the Croats have made a habit of impressing on the grand stage.
During their inaugural competition in 1998, Croatia surprisingly sealed third place after narrowly crashing out to tournament winners France in the semi-finals.
Croatia’s bid to make a second successive World Cup final starts with Morocco on Wednesday
It looked as though Croatia may never reach the lofty heights of a World Cup semi-final again, until they went one step further in 2018, losing in the final to France once again.
Yet, the primary concern for Zlatko Dalic’s side heading into this month’s tournament can be summed up in one short and simple word: age.
Their talismanic international hero Luka Modric turned 37 in September, Inter Milan star Marcelo Brozovic is now in his thirties, and Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic is 33.
However, with an average age of 27.9, Croatia are by no means the oldest squad at the tournament, with 10 nations higher in the charts including FIFA’s top ranked teams Argentina (28.4), Brazil (28.4) and Belgium (28.3).
Sportsmail takes a deeper look at Croatia’s World Cup side ahead of the nation’s tournament opener against Morocco on Wednesday.
Striker Kylian Mbappe scores for France against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup final in Russia
Boasting one of the most enviable midfield trios in world football, with Modric, Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic in the engine room, Croatia play to their strengths.
Adopting a 4-3-3 formation, the Croats look to dominate possession and play triangles in the middle of the park, creating space and opportunities for the attackers in their front three.
Dalic’s side is also well-drilled in defence, with traditional full-backs on the flanks who are tasked with stopping the opposition as priority, rather than charging forward in support.
Head coach Zlatko Dalic said he ‘won’t change the way Croatia play’ at the tournament in Qatar
Borna Sosa, who has built a reputation as an attacking wing-back at VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga, adopts a slightly more defensive role for Croatia and teams up well alongside his defensively robust team-mate Perisic in left wing.
Before their final round of Nations League fixtures in September, Dalic said: ‘I won’t change the way we play. When you have a midfield like ours, you have to strive to move the ball and create your chances through possession.
‘We must play out of the back and when midfielders don’t have to drop deep to get the ball we are more dangerous. We’ll press when possible, and when not, we’ll defend in a block.’
VfB Stuttgart’s attack-minded full-back Borna Sosa is set to start for the Croats on the left flank
Star player – Luka Modric
Modric has held the role of star player with Croatia for more than a decade now, and he has shown no signs of slowing down as he enters his late thirties.
The veteran still possesses the quickness mentally and physically to dominate opponents in midfield and has demonstrated both at the World Cup in 2018 and in the most recent Nations League campaign that he is a natural-born leader as captain.
In the build-up to the World Cup, Modric has netted five goals in 18 matches from midfield for Real Madrid and only missed one LaLiga match so far, demonstrating just how much Carlo Ancelotti trusts him in the engine room.
Croatia’s talisman and captain Luka Modric has scored 23 goals in 155 matches for his country
One to watch – Josko Gvardiol
Although defensive veterans Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida have travelled to Qatar, the pair are likely to start the tournament on the bench, making way for Josko Gvardiol and Bosko Sutalo.
The former has emerged one of the Bundesliga’s brightest young talents in recent seasons, impressing at Red Bull Leipzig since his arrival in July 2021.
Gvardiol was a key part of Leizpig’s defence as they qualified for the Champions League last campaign — and has continued to impress with 19 appearances in all competitions so far this season.
Josko Gvardiol has impressed in the Bundesliga since arriving at Red Bull Leipzig in July 2021
With Dalic insisting he will continue to play with a similar set-up at the World Cup, it is safe to assume that changes will be few and far between in the Croatia camp.
It would be a major shock if Modric, Kovacic or Brozovic missed out in the midfield, while Sutalo looks set to partner Gvardiol at the heart of defence, although Dalic could opt for the experience of Lovren.
Which striker leads the line for Croatia at the World Cup is up for debate, with Ante Budimir, Marko Livaja and Andrej Kramaric each earning a share of the minutes in 2022.
Predicted line-up against Morocco (4-3-3): Dominik Livakovic; Josip Juranovic, Josko Gvardiol, Josip Sutalo, Borna Sosa; Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic; Mario Pasalaic, Andrej Kramaric, Ivan Perisic.
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