Croatia are up against it in their World Cup opener against the hosts – but Alex Holiga says they can they start the tournament with a huge upset...
1) They have much more experience
This squad is loaded with caps. Vedran Corluka, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, Ognjen Vukojevic, Ivica Olic and Eduardo all have more than 50; goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and captain right-back Darijo Srna have amassed more than 100. At least six of those eight players – maybe even all of them – will start the game.
Compare that to Brazil’s expected line-up, where only Julio Cesar and Dani Alves have more than 50 caps, followed by Neymar with 49 appearances – and he’s only 22 and this is his first World Cup. All told, Croatia's squad has 910 caps to Brazil's 683 – but interestingly, the Croatians are on average a full year younger than Brazil (27.2 to 28.4).
The team was built on a solid foundation put in place during Slaven Bilic’s reign (2006-2012).
They have been together for a long time and have a family atmosphere in the locker room, enhanced by the managerial appointment of Niko Kovac, their former captain and on-pitch leader. Almost all of the players mentioned have a very good season behind them or have enjoyed a late upsurge in form. They shouldn’t be overawed by the occasion and hosts.
2) Their midfield is more fabulous
Who would you rather have in your team: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, or Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho and Oscar/Willian? If there’s one area of the pitch where Croatia can not only match Brazil’s star power and talent, but realistically say they’re better, then it’s surely the middle of the park.
Modric is one of the key players in the Champions League-winning Real Madrid team. Rakitic, who is expected to sign for Barcelona any day now, won the Europa League with Sevilla, where he’s the boss and captain. Neither of Brazil’s starting midfielders won anything this season.
Of course, midfield won’t always win you games, but it helps if you have two in-form playmakers like Modric and Rakitic – who, moreover, play with different, complementary styles. While Modric keeps the ball in movement and dictates the tempo of the game, Rakitic is more direct and his passes can be deadly.
Coach Kovac is greedy for trying to fit in Mateo Kovacic into the team and play with three playmakers. The Inter Milan rising star is likely to start as either a No.10, in which case Croatia won’t use a true holding midfielder, or on the wing. If Croatia can keep the ball as much as possible in central areas and away from the flanks, where Brazil are much more dangerous, then they might have a chance.
3) They might be fitter and better prepared
Now, this one may be just speculation, but Kovac really went out of his way to ensure everyone on his team reached an optimal fitness level after a long and exhausting season. The manager gathered a whole ensemble of associates – the largest ever in the national team’s history –including university professors, professional video analysts and technological experts, some hired from abroad. They devised individual training programmes for each of the players, monitoring and analysing their performance on a daily basis.
Of course, it’s not like Brazil just ran round and goofed about with the ball in their training sessions, but their preparation process is inevitably different. While Croatia’s main target is to get past the group stage, whatever happens later, the hosts are in it for the long haul – they had to plan and time their fitness levels all the way to the final. And it’s not the same if you prepare for seven games, or just for three or four.
4) Kovac can surprise Scolari (or himself)
Despite all the opposition analysis that must have taken place in the Brazil camp, Croatia are still largely an unknown quantity to them. Niko Kovac has only been in charge for a short while and has done his best to hide his tactical approach. The team played just two friendlies during their preparation for the World Cup and both times Kovac fielded an experimental line-up, masking his intentions for the Brazil match.
Luiz Felipe Scolari must have had a pretty hard time scouting his first opponent, simply because he was denied a chance to see the ‘real’ Croatia. There is very likely to be an element of surprise involved; however, just as that could work into Croatia’s favour, it might also backfire on Kovac, who never properly tested his plan.
5) The weight of expectations is incomparably lower for Croatia
Besides points they aren’t counting on anyway, Croatia have nothing to lose but a little confidence. For them, the potential gains overwhelmingly outweigh the risks. Brazil, on the other hand, will have an enormous home support on their side, but that can quickly turn into immense pressure if things stray away from the plan – and we know how that turned out the last time the Selecao played a World Cup game on home soil...