One of the finest central midfielders in the world, Modric can do just about anything. Quietly quarterbacking his team with impeccable distribution and sound defensive contributions, he isn’t a flashy player with eye-popping stats, but certainly the kind that you can build your team around.
Action ImagesLee Smith
This narrow nation on the Adriatic Sea gained admission into FIFA and UEFA in 1993 after gaining independence from Yugoslavia. It took just five more years to make a first appearance at the World Cup. Davor Suker earned Golden Boot honors and spearheaded his country's surprising third-place finish in France. The next two tournaments ended after the group stage as the core of the team evolved over that time period, but the failure to qualify for the first time in 2010 marked a low point for a team capable of finishing higher than third in a group topped by England and Ukraine.
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In Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Niko Kranjcar and wunderkind Mateo Kovacic, Croatia has an obvious abundance of creative playmakers. But this team is desperately short on quality wingers. Which is to say, they have none. None at all. They have tried converting some of their central players by pushing them out wide, but nothing has worked. And their wing backs aren’t up to the task of marauding forward to compensate for the lack of width in the midfield. This is just one of many tactical issues for the Croats, who have happened upon a pretty strong but very incomplete generation. How many playmakers can you field, after all? And how easily can they be stifled by clogging up the middle?
Action ImagesAndrew Couldridge
How they got here
Former defensive stalwart Igor Stimac took charge from Slaven Bilic in time to lead a disappointing campaign through Group A. Everything looked well and truly on course until a home defeat to Scotland in June. The setback marked a turning point: Croatia failed to win their next three matches -- including a 1-0 defeat to Belgium in Zagreb in October -- and settled for a place in playoffs. Under-21 coach Niko Kovac replaced his former international teammate in time for the tie against Iceland and shepherded his side through the tricky assignment with a 2-0 victory on aggregate.
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Doable. Facing Brazil in the tournament opener on their home soil will be no picnic. But when you consider that Group A also pits the Croats against Mexico and Cameroon, you needn’t feel bad for them. Mexico, after all, are a team that has spent much of the past year in disarray. And Cameroon have severe limitations. Croatia, then, ought to advance, given the talent within their squad.
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Round of 16 prospects
Bleak. Crossing over with Group B means that in all likelihood they would face Spain, the Netherlands or Chile. The former two disputed the final of the last World Cup, and Chile are an impressive side. That would likely be the end of the road for them.
Action ImagesTony O'Brien
Kovac may have steered Croatia through to the World Cup, but he must embark upon the journey without long-time defender Josip Simunic -- who shouted pro-Nazi chants into a microphone following Croatia’s defeat of Iceland and was suspended for 10 games as a result. Meanwhile, top scorer Mario Mandzukic will be unavailable for their opener against Brazil after a red card in the second match against Iceland. Mandzukic will return for the second and third games in group play and will need to hit the ground running, polishing off his creative side’s attacking moves and securing the goals required to grab a place in the knockout stage.