What will Croatia national football team look like after a 10-month break?

What will Croatia national football team look like after a 10-month break?
Photo: EPA/Getty Images/Pixsell/I. Kralj

THE CROATIA national football team got its schedule for continuation of competitions this autumn. It is going to be tighter than ever. In September, October, and November, Croatia will play as many as eight matches: six in the UEFA Nations League and two exhibition games. Croatian football manager Zlatko Dalic, who awaits the signing of a new contract with the Croatian Football Federation, will form the national team for the first time in nine months, after a friendly match against Georgia, and after the placement in the UEFA European Football Championship, which was postponed for 2021.

The coronavirus crisis disrupted all sports calendars: national championships and the Champions League will take place during the summer in an intense rhythm, so it is logical to expect fatigue, injuries, and the players' absence. It's clear that Dalic will need a much broader team of players. For example, in October and November, Croatia will, on two occasions, play as many as three games in just a week. The coach Dalic used The Nations League's first edition as an opportunity to test young players, without the results being imperative, and the national team dropped out of the elite A league.

What does the Nations League's new edition mean for Croatia, and how is it going to affect the national team?

The Nations League is most important than ever

The Nations League will be much more demanding and important for Dalic than last year's competition. A revised format and expanding the A league from 12 to 16 teams has given Croatia a chance to stay in the elite league, but the draw set Dalic's team in a very difficult group with Sweden, France, and Portugal. 

The Nations League now has a much more serious competitive tone. Namely, FIFA will determine the holders of the qualification groups for the Qatar World Cup through the Nations League, which means that poor results will lead to a more difficult path to the World Cup.

The possibility of the placement in the additional qualifications through the Nations League will now be especially valuable. The battle for the European Championship, which was expanded to 24 participants, has lost its charm for the strongest teams because of a relatively slim chance of the placement loss. Only 13 European national football teams are going to the World Cup, so the demand for any kind of placement is much higher. 

A novelty in this entire story is that the autumn slate of games will be the best test before the European championship, which is scheduled for next summer. That's what is most important for Dalic.

A year of incubation and searching for solutions

The postponement of the European Championship didn't sit well with Croatia for several reasons. The first one is that certain older players, such as Modric and Rakitic, will be a year older while waiting for the European Championship. The other reason is that Croatia has many national team players who lost their place in the starting lineups in their clubs, whose fitness levels vary as well as their playing time.

Modric and Rakitic belong to that group, but also Lovren, Perisic, and Rebic since recently. These five players are, in normal circumstances, almost certainly part of the starting line up, whose fitness level and status in a club or physical condition are almost impossible to predict.

That's why Dalic has an extremely demanding job ahead of him. Not only will he have to keep the team, which he intended to take to the European Championship this summer, on almost the same level, but in doing so, he will have to adjust the playing time of overloaded players by communicating with clubs.

At the same time, he has to find answers for three or four most important issues concerning the lineup and tactics. The first one concerns the left-back - will Borna Barisic remain in that position, or Domagoj Bradaric, who is a much more powerful striker, will get his chance. The second dilemma is in the middle of the pitch. If we take into consideration that there is no question about the status of Modric and Brozovic, it's uncertain whether Vlasic or Rakitic will take the position of a third midfielder.

Vlasic plays brilliantly in CSKA Moscow

The decision isn't only a matter of the lineup, because Croatia with Vlasic was a significantly different team from Croatia with Rakitic. Every one of them brings many necessary stylistic and tactical adjustments, and that's why Dalic will finally have to make up his mind for one of these two options. So far, the matter was being resolved by Rakitic's absence due to injuries or problems in the club, but it seems that Dalic is still faced with a dilemma. 

Finally, Dalic has to define his forward players, especially wingers. Rebic, Perisic, Brekalo, and Orsic have been the most prospective candidates for filling these positions, but there is another option with Vlasic as a winger so that he and Rakitic can enter the starting lineup.

To solve these problems, but also for tackling the exhausting and tight schedule, Dalic has to expand his circle of players who are in a serious competition to get a call. It seems that Croatia still has a lot of reserves that haven't even been tested nor used so far.

New players have to get a chance, as well as the players who have been on the periphery so far

Domagoj Livakovic has certainly profiled himself as a national team material on account of his quality and fitness level, but the key question is who is going to be his replacement. Toulouse is borrowing Lovre Kalinic, but due to his injury, he only played the first four matches since the winter pause, and his status is unknown. He has been removed from the forefront for a reason - the poor game in the national team and being a bench player in Aston Villa. Simon Sluga defends for Luton, but the competitiveness on that position certainly has to be sharpened.

Several goalkeepers stood out in the Croatian National League this season. Pandur, Kahlina, and Posavec had their good moments, and Ivo Grbic from Lokomotiva has most often played good matches in continuity. If Dalic and the Croatian Football Federation want to give importance to the national league, the least they can do is to take its best goalkeepers to the tournament as a replacement.

The defense is Croatian weakest spot. Due to Vrsaljko's long term injuries, we have watched more or less unsuccessful experiments with Bartolec and Jedvaj at the right-back. With Vrsaljko's return, the competitiveness on both back positions should be much more complete, but there is still a problem with the center-back position. Lovren isn't playing, and players such as Mitrovic and Peric, given this situation, were undeservingly pushed into the background. In the meantime, both players were injured, so Marin Pongracic is excellent news for Dalic.

The young central-back arrived from Red Bull Salzburg in Wolfsburg in the half-season and immediately became the indispensable part of the starting lineup. He's tall and somewhat slower, but he reads the game well, and he's a solid midfielder, which is extremely important for the first ball distribution.

In the middle of the field, Pasalic, Rog, and Filip Bradaric could get a higher chance due to their excellent matches this season. Petkovic had a comfortable situation as a striker because of Kramaric's long term injury. Now when the Hoffenheim player has recovered and plays excellently, Croatia has many more options in the forward positions. But not only the two of them deserved the call, but also Ante Budimir, who is one of the most pleasant surprises of the season as far as Croatian players abroad go.

He plays for Mallorca, takes long shots, jumps and scores, and Dalic could use him in situations when he wants to press the rival defense with another tall attacker, or when he needs a player who can keep the ball or replace Petkovic who cannot play at the same frequency the entire game.

There is a little over two months until the first test and match against Portugal (September 5). This summer, unlike others, will be marked with active competitions, which will bring injuries, problems, and potential new solutions as well. September will arrive quickly, and because of this specific situation, no national team manager can know what his team will look like, and in what condition they will be in that period of the season.

The key is to do what Dalic somewhat failed to do in the previous period, and now he won't be able to escape from it- promoting new players who can bring new values to the team, or establish themselves enough as smooth replacements for the starting lineup when the time comes.


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