Something funny happened during Croatia's Euro 2012 campaign. Our expectations were suddenly raised, and the team made Croatian fans around the world proud. Here are a few observations made during the past three games:
– Slaven Bilic made this team into a bona fide unit. They worked hard for each other and defended as a team.
– Ivan Strinic did a great job defending. Not only did he do that but he also provided wonderful service and crossing from the wings.
– Gordon Schildenfeld and Vedran Corluka made up a hell of a centre-back pairing. Tall, strong, winning aerial duels as if they had worked together for ages. Remember, Corluka is a natural right back.
– I was dead wrong about Stipe Pletikosa and I admit it. He couldn't have saved Pirlo's free kick and was stellar against Spain especially. I'll have my crow deep fried.
– Croatia can hang with anyone. We put eight guys back against Spain, time and time again, and should have won the game if not for Ivan Rakitic missing a wide open header. Credit to Iker Casillas for saving that one. We went after the best team in the world without any fear.
– Mario Mandzukic has the killer touch and knows how to finish. Rumour has it that Everton want to pair him with Jelavic. They sure performed well together at the Euros. Anyone else notice how nicely Mandzukic tracks back and defends for a striker?
– Ivan Rakitic needs improvement. His shooting and defensive work rate aside, the lad needs to improve on his passing and ball control.
– Luka Modric has "it". He has the skill and ability, but needs to show up more often in the first half for Croatia. He did brilliantly in the second halves of games during the tournament. He'll look good for Real Madrid next year, at least according to Mate Bilic.
– Something everyone can agree on is that these boys made us all proud and they played their asses off. It's a damn shame we didn't go further. Let's hope Stimac doesn't mess up what Bilic has put in place for the Croatian national team.
Croatia was one Ivan Rakitić header away from not only clinching a spot in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, but dethroning the current Euro and World Cup champions, Spain, all in the blink of an eye. With Italy expected to win against the Irish, Croatia knew they needed a result and had to play a near flawless game against the Spaniards to do so.
The Vatreni held their ground and disabled Spain's flowing ball movement in midfield for the entire first half, applying proper pressure and holding a high line. When balls were played down the flanks and through the middle, it was always met with discipline and physicality. With coach Slaven Bilić starting the match with only one striker in Mario Mandžukić, we can assume that he was ecstatic with the 0-0 halftime score line.
It was then in the 59th minute that Luka Modrić broke free down field and created the best chance of the game (for either team) as he whipped in a cross to a wide open and streaking Ivan Rakitić on the back post. The Sevilla man connected with the header but Real Madrid goalie Iker Casillas made an amazing save to keep the game scoreless. Many have already blamed Rakitić for not doing better on the chance but you have to credit Casillas as well. If he scores on the play, Croatia is surely packing their bags for a quarterfinal tie instead of debriefing before vacation. Bilić would bring in some firepower in the 66' with Nikica Jelavić and Ivan Perišić coming off the bench, but it just would not be.
Vedran Ćorluka was pulled down in the box with no penalty call and Perišić couldn't do better with an open long-range shot on goal. Spain would score in the dying minutes without a response and Croatia would be sent home, on the highest of notes. The team should be proud of their play and know that they hung with the world's best all the way to the end. The confidence this group of players gained from this tournament should translate into big wins during World Cup 2014 qualifying, which starts in September.
Can we finally set concrete expectations for this group of Croatian players after their performance at Euro 2012?
Written by Ante Kvartuč, CroatianSports.com