After a 3-1 loss against Mexico on Monday, Croatia are busy packing their bags, having failed to make it past the group stages of the 2014 World Cup. In 1998, their first appearance in the finals as an independent country, the team finished third, but since then they've gone backwards despite a quite astonishing collection of top level talent. And now the questions come.
When a team falls out of a major tournament, or even just fails to win a game against weaker opposition, fans often scramble to assign blame. The fault could lie with a biased referee or the cheating opposition. The players themselves could be the problem as well, particularly when sitters are missed or a keeper's howler leads to a goal. And, of course, the manager is always fun to blame, as he's the one tasked with finding a winning combination.
But sometimes, there's no single identifiable reason why a team fails to live up to its potential.
I never understood the frequency
The loss to Mexico turned the immediate spotlight on goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa. The 35-year-old has well over 100 caps for Croatia, having begun his senior international career back in 1999. Which is normally fine, if you're a goalkeeper. But Croatia's reliance on Pletikosa is a bit baffling.
The keeper has been with Rostov, in the Russian Premier League, since 2011. His club CV is less than impressive: failed to make an impression at Shakhtar Donetsk, lost his spot as first choice keeper with Spartak Moscow back in 2009, loaned to Tottenham, where his only appearance was a 4-1 defeat to Arsenal in the League Cup, couldn't find a spot at Celtic. And finally ended up at Rostov.
Pletikosa's weaknesses were on full display against Mexico, as the keeper's poor positioning left him flailing his arms while Mexico scored two goals in quick succession. Stipe's creaking knees were almost audible as he edged from one post to the other in an attempt to chase Andrés Guardado's lofted strike.
What's curious about all this is the fact that Croatia were still relying on Pletikosa. Argentina are using Monaco's backup keeper, Sergio Romero, who made just two appearances last season, falling behind in the pecking order to ... Danijel Subašić. Who is, yes, Croatian. Subašić joined the Ligue 2 side in January 2012, quickly becoming first choice and helping the team to promotion in 2012-2013. With Monaco's second-place finish in Ligue 1 last season, surely Subašić was worth a look?
Smack, crack, bushwhacked
Croatia can also follow the time-honored tradition of blaming the referee for their failures. In the first game of the tournament, Croatia and Brazil were locked in a 1-1 draw until the 70th minute. It seemed Croatia were content to defend, keeping Brazil out and leaving São Paulo with a point. Then Dejan Lovren bumped into Fred, sending the forward to ground, where he earned a highly dubious penalty.
Pletikosa got a hand on Neymar's resulting kick, but couldn't manage to keep it out. Croatia had a chance to equalize, but Ivica Olic was adjudged to have fouled Julio Cesar in the run-up, and they had one more thing to be indignant about. By the end of the game, it was 3-1 Brazil. Should Croatia have managed to hang on for that point ... yeah, they'd still be out.
But Mexico had even more right to be aggrieved, yet they're the ones heading to the next round. In the first match, the officials gave not one but two highly suspect calls against el tri, with the flag going up twice against Giovani dos Santos. Yet Mexico persevered, and eventually Oribe Peralta came through with the winner.
So too against Croatia. Darijo Srna lifted an arm to block a goalbound effort from Guardado, but the referee determined no crime had been committed. Rather than retreat into their shell -- a perfectly acceptable option, as they needed just a point - Mexico came flying back, now unsatisfied with anything other than a win.
And so another 3-1 loss for Croatia. And, perhaps, another lesson learned.
Shiny happy people laughing
When Niko Kovač took over as Croatia boss prior to the World Cup playoff against Iceland, fans were ecstatic. Kovač is something of a hero in his homeland, having captained the national team in both the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, before taking the reins of the U21 side.
And at first, Kovač seemed like a solid choice to lead Croatia deep(ish) into the 2014 tournament. His predecessor, Igor Štimac, had tinkered far too much with the team, producing a string of poor results that saw Croatia take just one point from their final four qualifying matches. Kovač provided stability, plus he cuts an excellent figure on the touchline, always donning a sharply-tailored suit.
By the second leg of the playoff, Kovač looked to have his side sorted. Using a 4-2-3-1 formation with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitić paired in central midfield, with Mateo Kovačić on hand to help create, Croatia beat Iceland 2-0, and looked rather stylish while doing so. The coach put out roughly the same lineup against Brazil, albeit with necessary changes, such as Lovren stepping in for the banned Josip Šimunić and Nikica Jelavic replacing the suspended Mario Mandžukić.
Then Kovač started tinkering. While Kovačić hadn't been fantastic against Brazil, he was certainly solid, but against Cameroon, Sammir stepped in to take his place -- further fueling rumors that Kovač is beholden to Dinamo Zagreb chairman Zdravko Mamić, the team Sammir played for until January. Samnir did little to impress, but with Croatia running out 4-0 winners, the decision to start him mattered little.
But with the team needing a win against Mexico in their final group stage match, Kovač panicked, abandoning his tried and true formula. Well, he still used a 4-2-3-1, but both his lineup and his substitutions were questionable at best. Danijel Pranjić can operate in central midfield, but his move there required Modric to move further up the pitch, while Rakitic needed to devote too much time to defensive duties. Considering the Modric-Rakitic partnering showcases Croatia's best assets, this move was seriously fatal to the team's ambitions.
In the 58th minute, Kovačić came on to replace Šime Vrsaljko, with Pranjic moving to leftback. Ante Rebic replaced the ancient legs of Ivica Olic in the 69th minute, and Jelavic came on for Pranjic for the final fifteen. Yet nothing worked, with Mexico able to shut down Croatia's brightest creators, and the side reduced to playing out wide.
Croatia may have been thrilled when Kovač was appointed. But a pretty face and decent playing pedigree shouldn't be sufficient to keep him around for the next major tournament.