Can the ‘magic triangle’ do the trick?

Considering the amount of talent at its disposal, one wonders how Croatia struggled in its qualifying campaign. It finished second in Group A, a massive nine points behind Belgium, despite being unbeaten in its first six matches. A 1-0 loss to Scotland in Zagreb triggered a chain reaction — two defeats in the final three matches — before Mario Mandzukic’s equaliser against Serbia in a 1-1 draw guaranteed a play-off spot.

Soon after the conclusion of the group stage, the Croats replaced manager Igor Stimac with Niko Kovac, once their talismanic captain and now, possibly, the perfect role model and mentor for the young guns. They were matched, yard for yard, by their over-achieving opponent Iceland in the play-off, held goalless in the first leg — playing with 10 men — before prevailing 2-0 in the return fixture. It wasn’t the most convincing of ways to qualify for Brazil, but Kovac has a team that is well-balanced with several top-class personnel who ply their trade in Europe’s big leagues.

Croatia made a name for itself in its first tournament since separation from the erstwhile Yugoslavia at the 1998 Finals in France, where it finished third. The success was a massive accomplishment but one that invariably set the bar too high — every Vatreni generation since has endured constant (unfair) comparisons with the iconic bronze-medal winning side comprising top-scorer Davor Suker and the creative fulcrum of Zvonimir Boban, Aljosa Asanovic and Robert Prosinecki. Croatia failed to get past the group stage in the two subsequent tournaments and did not qualify for the 2010 edition.

However, with the Champions League and Europa League winners, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, in stunning form, and the young Mateo Kovacic catching many an eye, Croatia can bank on its ‘magic triangle’ in midfield to bring back the glory days.