Published 26/05/2016 at 13:09 GMT | Updated 10/06/2016 at 17:03 GMT
Croatia have previous at European Championships, reaching the last eight in both 1996 and 2008 – and a squad containing some breathtaking talents will have underachieved if it does not at least achieve something similar this time.
Ante Cacic is particularly spoilt for choice in midfield, where Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kavacic would stroll into most Euro 2016 teams; he can also call upon proven goalscorers such as Mario Mandzukic and Nikola Kalinic up front, with the experienced Darijo Srna once more lining up at right-back. Cacic is also keen on blooding an exciting generation of youngsters and if he gets the mix right then Croatia’s blend could be one of the most intoxicating on show.
Can Croatia become the sum of their parts? It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to see them finishing second behind Spain in Group D and facing the Group E winners – who could well be Belgium – in the round of 16. That would be a mouthwatering clash and tough to call on paper, not to mention the kind of tussle Croatia need to come through if the likes of Modric and Rakitic are to fulfil their potential on the international stage. The talent is there but, despite an excellent run that has seen Croatia lose just twice since their early World Cup exit, it is not unreasonable to feel that there should be a little more to come.
The left back spot is among Croatia’s points of contention and Sime Vrsaljko, the excellent Sassuolo player who usually plays on the right, has probably done enough to keep the place from Josip Pivaric. Midfield balance will be key and so will the selection further forwards where Marko Pjaca, the exciting Dinamo Zagreb wide man, could be in line to start – although Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinic has been in fine form and offers a persuasive case to partner Mario Mandzukic in a more orthodox strike pairing. Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren did not make the final cut and centre-back looks a possible area of weakness.
THE MANAGER: ANTE CACIC
Cacic had little international experience, aside from spells in the Croatia Under-21 and Libya coaching setups, before taking the role from Niko Kovac last September. Croatia needed someone to set them back on course after a damaging defeat in Norway had jeopardised their hopes of automatic qualification and Cacic delivered with two immediate wins.
Image credit: Imago
The 62-year-old has managed numerous domestic clubs in the last 30 years, most notably a spell at Dinamo Zagreb in the 2011-12 season, but his appointment still caused considerable surprise at home and he will be under pressure to get the best out of a talented squad in France.
TOP THREE PLAYERS
Luka Modric: One of the world’s outstanding midfield players, Modric had a fine season at Real Madrid after Zinedine Zidane’s appointment and dictates proceedings for his national team too. He is closing in on a century of Croatia caps.
Luka Modric Croatia
Image credit: Imago
Darijo Srna: The captain and right-back is slowing up a little at 34 but his influence over 14 years – and almost 130 caps – has been remarkable. So has his dedication to his club, Shakhtar Donetsk, since 2003, with most of Europe’s leading lights having trailed him at some stage.
Ivan Rakitic: Rakitic was born in Switzerland but now has 75 caps for Croatia and, like Modric, is an important performer for one of Spain’s big two. In his case it is Barcelona, where he has impressed in midfield since joining in 2014 and has retained the eye for goal he showed at previous club Sevilla.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic will make a fine tourism ambassador for his country if the football ever gets a bit dull – he often posts, or retweets, pictures of Croatia at its best using his Twitter account. Perhaps four years playing for Monaco have simply made him homesick.
JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE
It may be that Cacic tries to field all three of his gifted central creators – Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic – in the same side, but more likely, certainly against better opponents, is that Kovacic stands down for a more defensive figure such as Marcelo Brozovic, Milan Badelj or Mario Pasalic.
Croatia's midfilder Mateo Kovacic listens to the national anthem before the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Croatia and Italy at the Poljud stadium in Split on June 12, 2015
Image credit: AFP
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Direct qualification from Group H was a close-run thing for Croatia despite their only losing once, away to Norway. Had the Norwegians won in Italy on the final matchday, they would have pipped Cacic’s side but the victories over Bulgaria and Malta that the new coach oversaw proved decisive. Croatia had, in fact, beaten Norway 5-1 in their home fixture; two 1-1 draws against Italy, one of which landed them a point deduction after a racist symbol was displayed on the pitch in Split, showed they can mix it with the big names and the pair are possible last-16 opponents in France.
Croatia's Ivan Perisic (R) celebrates after scoring during the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Malta and Croatia on October 13, 2015 at the National Stadium in Ta’Qali, Malta