How Croatia prepared for the World Cup play-offs by sacking unpopular Igor Stimac and elevating U21 boss Niko Kovac...
The iconic one-time captain Niko Kovač replaced the hugely unpopular Igor Štimac at the helm after Croatia lost three of the last four games in their qualifying group.
While it would be a stretch to say the 42-year-old former Hertha Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich midfielder was welcomed as a saviour, his appointment certainly shifted the team dynamic and the atmosphere around the side in the right direction.
It's true that Kovač is only a beginner as manager, but his short tenure with Croatia U21s was impeccable: five wins in five matches, with a 16-0 goal difference, all achieved while playing a much more modern and dynamic style of football than his predecessor did with the senior squad.
As a player, Kovač was blessed with remarkable positional intelligence and leadership qualities which made him the first foreign-born (Kovač hails from Berlin) Croatia captain and now he's been put in charge of the team which includes many of his former team mates.
Kovač remains buttoned up as to his selection and approach against Lars Lagerbäck's Iceland in their two-legged World Cup qualifying play-off. Maybe he can't change much tactically after only a few training sessions with the squad, but employing his charisma to lift the team spirit might well be the most important thing for Croatia right now.
After all, a side that has Luka Modrić, Darijo Srna, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić within their ranks must be able to perform much better than they did towards the end of this qualifying campaign; they surely possess enough quality to overcome Iceland. So, unlike Štimac, the new Croatia manager is also enjoying an unprecedented popular support – but will all this be enough to take the team out of the doldrums and on their way to Brazil?
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