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FIFA World Cup qualifiers

Watch: Hajduk Split’s defeat against Gżira United should be an eye-opener for Croatia

The Croatia national team on Tuesday night will take on Malta in a World Cup qualifier in Rijeka.

On the back of a fantastic run in the 2018 World Cup, coming short only to France in the final, the Croatians are struggling to rekindle that football and enthusiasm that saw them reach the final.

The Croatians reached this summer’s Euro 2020 after topping their group with 17 points from eight matches, but not without any trouble – case in point an unexpected 1-1 draw in Azerbaijan which could have easily compromised their qualification given that Wales and Slovakia finished three and four points behind them.

“It is hard to explain in a simple way what are the expectations on this team,” Croatian journalist Davor Petrovic told The Times of Malta.

“Football experts are aware that this national team is going through a transitional period because if you see the senators that played in the 2018 World Cup like Danijel Subasic, Verdran Corluka, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic have all retired from the selection.

“In addition, Ivan Strinic has been without a club for a long time while Sime Vrsaljko has been injured for over two years now.”

The Novi List journalist explained that for now, qualification to Qatar is the most important because in their minds it is not realistic to repeat what they did in Russia.

“It is fair to say that the supporters were spoiled after the World Cup success in 1998 and 2018,” Petrovic admitted.

However, their performances in the opening two Nations League editions have been a far cry from those shown in Russia 2018.

In a total of 10 games played, they collected only seven points with a negative record of 26 goals conceded. Their campaign included a 6-0 defeat against Spain and a surprising 2-1 loss against Sweden.

“The results of the Nations League are exposing the current Croatia team,” Petrovic said.

“Moreover, the results in this qualifying campaign against Slovenia and Cyprus are a fair reflection of this.

“Croatia has a lot of defensive frailties and it has lost its attacking edge in those matches and we all hope that during the training camp before Euro 2020, our team can improve.”

Zlatko Dalic’s squad opened their 2022 World Cup qualifications with a disappointing 1-0 loss at Slovenia and grinded out a narrow victory over minnows Cyprus in their second game.

Two lacklustre performances that do not help the Croatian environment at this crucial time, months before the European Championships where they are tipped as one of the favourites given their exploit in Russia.

“Do you remember when Gżira United eliminated Hajduk Split from the Europa League back in 2019? On the day of the second leg, Croatian media said that it was easier to see aliens than see Gżira beat Hajduk Split,” Petrovic remembered.

“That speaks volumes about the mentality in this country and although the players might not think in the same way, sometimes it plays against us and we find ourselves blocked in the so-called easy games.

“Moreover, following the previous World Cup, our oppositions are becoming motivated to beat us given that we were finalists, and that is maybe another factor that is not helping us in this period.”

Nurturing youths

Throughout its history, Croatia have always produced gifted talents to the football world and the current 2021 UEFA U-21 European championships shed light on their progress at youth level.

In the ‘Group of Death’, Croatia have so far lost to favourites Portugal by just one goal to nil while they beat Switzerland 3-2 to keep their hopes of progressing as they face England in the final game of Group D, tomorrow.

Petrovic named Lille’s Domagoj Bradaric, who already won four caps at senior level and Dinamo Zagreb duo – Luka Ivanusec and Borna Sosa – are also considered among the upcoming major players in Croat football.

“One promising player included in this squad is 23-year-old Nikola Vlasic who is at CSKA Moscow while there are a lot of hopes on Wolfsburg’s Josip Brekalo but he is yet to live up to the expectations built on him,” the Croatian journalist explained.

“Last but not least though, all Croatian football experts unanimously are tipping all-round defender Josko Gvardiol – 19 – as a world class player.

“He has already joined German side RB Leipzig for next season, but he will continue the current season at Dinamo Zagreb.”

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