Yes, the odds are low, but Croatia is an intriguing team entering the World Cup. Let’s dig in and see why.
Croatia enters the World Cup under a relatively new Manager in Niko Kovac, who’s only been in charge for seven matches. But maybe that’s a good thing? During his playing days, Kovac was known for his spirit and determination. He brings that to a side that generally excels in a physical, scrappy, possession-based game. The technically gifted Vatreni will feed off this enthusiasm, and they’re going to need it right out of the gate – they’ve got a June 12th, opening match against the host nation of Brazil.
There’s no doubt the opening game is going to be hard. Croatia will be trying to get revenge for a 2006 1-0 loss to Brazil. Brazil also has the highest nERD ranking by our measures at 3.44 (nERD measures overall team efficiency, and is an estimate of expected goal difference against an average international team.). Compare that to Croatia’s 21st-ranked score of 2.01, and it’s clear that this is a mismatch on paper. Throw in the game is not being played on paper, but rather in Sao Paulo, and logic dictates an early loss for Croatia.
All is not lost, though.
In fact, by our measures, Croatia’s chance of getting to the knockout stage is a positive outlier compared to their nERD ranking. This is due to the relative weak group they are in. Their odds of advancing out of Group A are 38.03%, which is higher than Italy,Switzerland, and the United States. All three of those countries have a higher nERD score than Croatia, yet lower odds of advancing.
Beyond Brazil, Croatia should have an easy next two games. Their second game is against Cameroon, who has the lowest nERD score of any team going to the World Cup (0.80). A win should certainly be expected there. They end their qualifying with a game against Mexico, a game that should surely determine who advances in second place. Croatia might be favored in this game, as Mexico limped into this tournament – it’s hard for even the most passionate El Tri fan to argue Mexico is in good shape right now. Mexico’s total score (which measures contribution towards goals scored in a match) is 1.09. The Croatians have a 1.30 score. Adding them up gives us a score of 2.39 (expected number of goals in that match). Meaning this likely decider should be fun to watch with plenty of goals.
So their odds aren’t terrible – now let’s talk about some key players for Croatia. Can Croatia surprise the world and advance far into this tournament? It all starts with their little maestro, Luka Modric. As a Tottenham fan, I had the pleasure of watching Luka mature into the player that recently led Real Madrid to a European ‘La Decima’. The man is the heartbeat of any team he plays for. Modric has played 73 matches for Croatia and has scored 8 goals. But his worth isn’t measured in only goals – he’s the link from the back to the front. The man that makes the one, essential, impossible pass to turn defense into offense. He orchestrates defenders out of position with a slight shoulder dip. He’s small in stature, but so difficult to take the ball off of. Anything good that happens with this team will start with him.
Two other key members of this squad are Mario Mandzukic, a striker looking to impress on the world’s stage, especially with his stay at Bayern seemingly coming to an end. Playing the lone striker role, he will be vital to the way the Croatians attack, as well as how they pressure off the ball to get possession back while in defense. Ivan Rakitic is fresh off a Europa title with Sevilla and also looks poised to be an important member of any deep run this summer.
The Croatian team is riding a high after defeating Iceland to secure a spot in Brazil. They have very few injuries to deal with and boast some players (Modric and Rakitic) that have won serious silverware very recently; so they know what it takes to win a tournament. In 1998, the Croatians made their first World Cup appearance since declaring their independence in 1991. They shocked the world and finished third with an attractive style of football that was also effective. A decade and a half later, don’t be surprised if that were to happen again. With a 38% chance of getting to the Round of 16, there most definitely is a chance they’ll shock the world.