The 2018 World Cup was a wonderful occasion for Croatia, as its football team reached its first ever final. The tournament was a remarkable success for Zlatko Dalić’s team, who showed tenacity and skill to battle their way past the likes of Argentina and England. Croatian fans will be dreaming of a repeat story as Euro 2020 gets underway this summer – a year later than planned.
But can they do it? Luka Modrić and co will have faith in their ability to do so, but there are some formidable obstacles on their path. Here’s a look at what awaits Vatreni this summer, as a festival of football comes to Europe.
Before we look at Croatia’s possible route to success, how likely is it that their loyal fans will be able to go and watch the games live?
Well, UEFA are reluctant to disclose ticketing details until a few weeks before the tournament due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Organisers are said to be targeting a 50% capacity, which, in theory, creates a huge demand for tickets. UEFA, however, have an application process which allocates them randomly - and extremely strict measures are also in place to prevent people touting tickets for prices resembling a lottery jackpot.
It’s likely that watching the tournament on TV will be the most likely, and safest, way for fans to enjoy Croatia games – but many will be hoping that the situation improves enough to make in-person viewing possible.
Group Opponents and venues
The pandemic has virtually wiped out home advantage — the benefit of playing in front of your own fans — thanks to empty stadiums, but it could be something that Croatia have to contend with. Two of their three Group D games will be in their opponents’ stadium and, with that possible 50% capacity come June, their hosts might have that extra boost from the fans.
The group favourites, England boast a galaxy of attacking talent in their ranks, including Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden. Yet coach Gareth Southgate is famous for his defensive mindset, and this is where Croatia could pounce, like in 2018. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, if chosen, is prone to errors, and there have been question marks over centre-halves Harry Maguire and John Stones in the past. The famous Wembley is the setting, but England fans can go quiet if they concede the first goal – something Vatreni will look to exploit.
Home of the famous ‘Hampden Roar’, Scotland’s Hampden Park produces a fearsome atmosphere when full, so even if half-empty it may be a daunting prospect. However, Croatia will be confident that they have the talent to overpower Scotland, even if the hosts have been in good form over the past year. The battle between Modrić and John McGinn could be key to this one.
It’s a case of history repeating itself against the Czechs after the two sides met in Group D of the last Euro tournament! That game finished in an entertaining 2-2 draw after Croatia threw away a two-goal lead, and neutrals will be hoping for similar entertainment this time.
Croatia are in the strange position of preferring a second-place finish in Group D thanks to their possible fixtures should they qualify.
Finishing top of the group means they come up against whoever is runner-up in the tournament’s ‘Group of Death’, Group F. That means one of France, Germany or Portugal – that's right, the last two World Cup winners and the current European champions, with one of Cristian Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe or Thomas Müller waiting in the wings.
Qualifying in second, however, promises a tie against the Group E runners-up. With Spain probably winning that group, that means one of Poland, Slovakia or Sweden. None of them awful teams, but certainly ones Croatia would hope to beat.
It’s also possible to qualify as one of the best third-placed teams, which would most likely pit them against the Netherlands and Belgium, but boss Dalić will be hoping for a better finish than that.
So, let’s imagine if the most likely scenario plays out (according to the bookmakers) and Croatia play one of Poland, Slovakia or Sweden: who would they meet in the quarter-finals? Well, the Group of Death would rear its ugly head again, as Croatia would play the victors of the clash between F’s winners and a lesser third-placed team.
Although, as we all know, anything can happen once you get to the last eight...
Whenever a football pundit talks about the Croatian national team, you can bet that Luka Modrić isn’t far away from the discussion. The 35-year-old is an influential captain and has been key to the team for the last 15 years. When Luka plays well, so do Croatia, and the opposition will be working out ways to stop him getting into his groove.
Experience will be important at the back, too, and the side will rely on Dejan Lovren’s know-how in the big games to guide their defence. The 31-year-old is now Zenit St. Petersburg’s captain and he’ll be crucial in high-pressure situations.
If it’s youth you’re searching for then look no further than Josip Brekalo. The flying winger is a key part of a fine Wolfsburg team this season and was named one of UEFA’S Top 50 Young Players in 2019, along with Nikola Vasic. His pace and skill will be vital if Croatia are to unlock some of the better defences at the tournament.
Where will they finish?
Croatia have a useful blend of youth and big-game experience for Euro 2020, which should be enough to get them through the group stage. However, much bigger tests await them in the knockout stages with probable ‘Group of Death’ opponents awaiting them in the last 16 or quarter finals. Expect a valiant effort but not quite the heights of the World Cup.
Likely outcome: Quarter-finals.