This Croatia generation is nothing like the iconic 1998 team. Improvement is needed if the present is to outdo the past at the World Cup.
‘God willing, we would like to lift the World Cup trophy. That’s what we’re here for.’
Dejan Lovren followed a similar theme to Domagoj Vida when he said: ‘We have a chance to outdo the 1998 generation with luck and hard work.’
Talk of winning the World Cup and outdoing the famed 1998 generation dominated the pre-match buildup of Saturday’s quarter-final against Russia as confidence oozed through the Croatia camp.
Two decades ago, Croatia announced themselves on the international stage with a third-place finish in France. And quite rightly, this group were considered a dark horse to get their hands on the trophy after years of promise and close calls.
Croatia reached Euro 2008 quarter-finals and the last 16 of Euro 2016. And with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic in the team, what else should be expected?
For a side boasting so many stars, it was another underwhelming performance – a regular occurrence aside from the win over an out-of-sorts Argentina in the group stage – against a spirited and energetic Russia in Sochi.
There were flashes of brilliance – Ante Rebic leading the way in that department – but Croatia lacked the bite to really hurt the hosts, though the post did deny Perisic and the Balkan nation from taking a second-half lead.
Croatia were not helped by the positioning of Modric and Rakitic, who were sitting so deep. Two key midfielders and playmakers were almost operating as sweepers alongside Lovren and Vida – starving Croatia and their forwards of creativity.
Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia were vulnerable defensively too. Right back Ivan Strinic was targeted by Russia during a chaotic opening half, though it took a stunning long-range effort from Denis Cheryshev to spark pandemonium in the stands.
Croatia eventually settled and responded within eight minutes approaching half-time as Mario Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric combined.
On the back foot for much of the first 45 minutes, the second panned out as expected, with Croatia controlling possession, just like Spain did against Russia before their penalty shootout exit.
Compact and resolute, Croatia – for all their keys – were unable to unlock Russia. That was until extra time, only for Russia to respond again.
After Mario Fernandes dramatically cancelled out Vida’s go-ahead goal in extra time, back-to-back shootouts were needed for Croatia and a slice of fortune went their way.
Igor Akinfeev – the hero against Spain – got a hand to Modric’s penalty but the ball remarkably still managed to find the net, halting Russia’s momentum before Rakitic sealed the country’s passage.
It was not pretty, just like it was not against Nigeria, Iceland and Denmark. It was also physically and mentally exhausting.
England now stand in the way of Croatia and a place in the final.
However, this generation is nothing like the greats of Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban. Serious improvement is needed if the present is to outdo the past.