Croatia could pull a surprise and make a deep run at Euro 2012. They could also fall flat on their faces. Nobody really knows what to make of the checkered Croats in Poland/Ukraine, and that is half the fun.
Four years ago, Croatia played some of the best football in Euro and didn't go out until penalty kicks in the quarterfinals did them in. Luka Modric introduced himself to the non-nerds of the football world with his cultured passing that caused havoc for opposing defenses and Niko Kovac earned plaudits not just for his tough tackling, but his ability to quickly turn defending into attacking. Ivica Olic proved to be a handful for opponents and the defense was sensational.
Croatia were perfect in the group stage, defeating Germany, Austria and Poland to win the group. And while their early elimination did put a cloud over the Croats' Euro, they certainly made their mark four years ago.
But four years is a long time. Croatia may be ranked eighth in the world, but that is from the never-reliable FIFA rankings and the team has a host of problems that they didn't have four years ago. For one, Kovak retired, leaving them with a hole in the midfield. Olic is also missing from the team, although his absence is due to injury, and that defense that performed so admirably four years ago is now older and much slower.
With Gordon Schildenfeld and Josip Simunic in defense, Croatia has two experienced central defenders, but two slow ones. Outside, Croatia are playing two players, Vedran Corluka and Domagoj Vida, who are both better off as central defenders. That doesn't exactly help compensate for the lack of pace in the center and that Tomislav Dujmovic doesn't read the game nearly as well as Kovac means that the defense doesn't have an ace central defender to protect them.
If Croatia can manage to hide their lack of pace at the back, though, they could do some damage. Modric is as good of a passer as there is from the center and he has only gotten better in the last four years. There are concerns about his dip in form at the end of the season for Tottenham, but that was attributed to fatigue and he has been limited in training for Croatia so he should have gotten sufficient rest. A rested Modric can unlock any defense with one pass and when a team has a player like that in the team they are always a danger.
Modric is not alone in the midfield either. Formerly speedy right back and now crafty Darijo Srna, who still has some quick runs in him when he needs it, is on he right and Ivan Perisic is on the left. The two give Croatia two dependable outside midfielders who can keep the ball, in part to protect the defense, and challenge opposing fullbacks.
Olic's absence does require some change up front, but it isn't going to leave Croatia with a major hole. Nikica Jelavic can fill in just fine up top and considering Olic's poor season, Jelavic might not be much of a downgrade. He'll be up top with Mario Mandzukic, who might be the most important player in the team after Modric. Without Kovac, Modric has to play in a deeper role than the role he played four years ago, which was almost as a number 10. That means Mandzukic will have to show for the ball and take more of a playmaking role.
There is adequate depth on the bench in Ivan Rakitic, Niko Kranjcar and Eduardo, all of whom can make a difference late on in matches. Croatia also have a dependable goalkeeper in Stipe Pletikosa. There is a lot to like about the Croatian team.
That defense could be the downfall of Croatia, though, no matter what they offer going forward. There is only so much you can do without pace and without Kovac to take the ball then get Croatia into the attack, they can be very slow to get forward. It may be a matter of Modric vs. the defense and whether the diminutive midfielder can keep the holes at the back from being exploited.
Projected Lineup (4-4-2)
GK Stipe Pletikosa LB Vedran Corluka CB Josip Simunic CB Gordon Schildenfeld RB Domagoj Vida LM Ivan Perisic CM Luka Modric CM Tomislav Dujmovic RM Darijo Srna FW Mario Mandzukic FW Nikica Jelavic
Luka Modric: Without Kovac, Modric has to drop deeper, has to be the man who turf defense into attack and he has to put in a little more work defensively. That last part might be the biggest problem for Croatia if Modric is not rested and fit after a long club season. He was brilliant four years ago and he has gotten better since, but he will have to do more than he did in 2008 and do his best to cover for the weaknesses at the back if Croatia are to flourish.
Quarterfinals: The Croats got thrown in a tough group, but with Italy in scandal it doesn't look too bad anymore. Croatia should be able to get three points against Ireland in their opener and if they can get a win against a reeling Italy then they can book their place in the knockout stages before they have to play Spain. Their run will end in the quarterfinals, though, when France's Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri exploit Croatia's problems at the back.