We’re more than halfway through the Russian edition of the FIFA World Cup, and with the Group Stage being over, a handful of teams have been sent home early. With the Round of 16 having commenced, additional teams have had to watch the rest of the tournament alongside fans.

If their current form were to obey to their underachieving performances since their bronzed success of 1998, Croatia would’ve been one of those teams.

Instead, this year the checkered side has not only topped its group, but it has done so by winning all three of its group matches. The feat is a first in the team’s history, one that could give insight about how their campaign could potentially distance them from the ‘dark horse’ stigma.

The three teams that they’ve had to face in the group stage have been Nigeria, Argentina, and Iceland; all underperformers. To date, all three have been eliminated from the competition, and we’ve yet to reach the end of the Round of 16 stage. Meanwhile, Croatia held Denmark in their Round of 16 match to move on to the quarterfinals.

Match against Nigeria

In addition to the victorious status for jersey sales, Nigeria showed to be a respectable side in their first World Cup bout. Although broken by a 32nd minute own goal and a 71st penalty, the Super Eagles fought valiantly losing due to missed opportunities, maybe nervousness or even bad luck.

However, on paper the sides penciled in almost identical numbers. The Croatians had a slightly better control of the ball with a 54-46 percent overall possession and they were slightly less accurate on the shooting range with a 2/9 against a 2/7 Nigerian score. They also had three more chances to play the ball from the corner than the Nigerians’ 27 attempts.

Andrej Kramarić (No.9) celebrates goal against Nigeria

Was Croatia running on all of its engines, though? While the Nigerian side struggled to even complete plays, the Croatians breezed through the match. Yes, luck may have had something to do with it, but their later tête-à-tête with Argentina awoke a World Cup worthy Croatia.

Match against Argentina

Coming into this World Cup, Argentina was on a mission to dominate and achieve what they couldn’t in the 2014 final of Rio. However, against a dark-jersey Croatia, they fell flat and not only lost their contender status, but made way for the Balkan team to perform at a different level. After playing a studious first half, the second half saw the Croatians push forward, shoot accurately (six times on goal) with an overall 41 percent possession of the ball. Although the first goal was due to an embarrassing mistake by the Argentinian keeper Willy Caballero, the fault of the other two fell on the disarmed defensive line.

Captain Luka Modrić celebrates goal against Argentina

While midfielder Luka Modrić proved himself to be worthy of his reputation as the most important connecting link on the field for Croatia, defensive midfielders Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic excelled in not only covering the attacking Argentinian pieces, but also creating chances for the frontline of wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebić, who then would entertain the likes of an aggressive forward, Mario Mandžukić.

In chances of counter-attacking, the Argentinians were not able to finish due to an almost choreographically prepared Croatian defense. The latter shut down any possible openings and any chances for Lionel Messi to communicate the ball to and from his teammates, sometimes with physicality exceeding necessity.

While the Croatians did dominate, the world of football was doubtful. By many, Argentina was evaluated as the weaker side coming out of this match. Was the result thanks to the winner’s intelligence, technical superiority and physicality? Did the pre-World Cup pressure on Argentina weaken the Southern Americans making the match a one-sided fight, or was it Sampaoli’s fault for not entertaining the options of Di Maria and Higuain in the most important match of the group?

I believe it is all three, with the addition of one more reason: drive.

Croatia’s roster would intimidate any team, was it not for the jersey and the name. Their World Cup record, since the ’98 peak of a third place, is riddled by blank shots at titles. Their logo has yet to carry a star above itself, but the names in the team carry the drive, confidence, and maturity of champions, as in their club careers have already played important roles in lifting important trophies in Europe. Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandžukić, Mateo Kovačić, Šime Vrsaljko, have already seen triumphs in Europe with their Clubs, while the rest of the team has enjoyed domestic success in respective clubs.

Weaknesses-Matches against Iceland and Denmark

However unimportant for their qualification out of the group stage, the match against Iceland carries importance to understand a weaker point of the Croats. So does their Round of 16 facing with Denmark.

While a team like Belgium could afford to engage their bench, and yet, win important bouts (England-Belgium 0-1), Croatia had to still have Modrić leading in midfield to successfully connect. Andrej Kramarić took the place of Mandžukić, and Marko Pjaca that of Ante Rebić, and they did take the win from the desperate Icelandic side. But their midfield could change their World Cup fate if by any chance their most precious line of offense would be weakened by (knock on wood) possible injuries.

Against Denmark, the Croats showed frustration for the first time in the tournament. Although they overtook their opponent on a penalty shootout, the side was put on their heels, showing discomfort in attacking. However, their ability to stay focused and come back from a missed penalty in the 114th minute, shows that their opponent next Saturday, Russia, will need more than the hosting advantage to beat the Croats.

* * *

For this team, pressure is not an issue, and in addition to achieving the ultimate success in the World Cup, they’re pursuing the changing of the way that the world thinks of Croatia, which is to not be thought of as a one-time wonder in the books of World Cup history, but as one of the most important and dangerous assembly of determined minds.

Any football fan appreciates the talents of the abovementioned players in the Champions League or Europa League, whose fluidity never ceases to amaze when they have to work together for the international stage. Seeing them go far in the tournament attracts the support of anyone appreciative enough of this beautifully organized team. This alone, should make way for a possible triumph in this year’s tournament, without considering the fact ‘a surprise of the World Cup’.

Team Photo Credit: BlogSpot.com

Goal Against Nigeria Photo Credit: 90min.com

Luka Modrić Photo Credit: express.co.uk

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