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Croatia banking on new talent to repeat World Cup heroics

Football - World Cup - Final - France v Croatia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July

ZAGREB World Cup runners-up Croatia know expectations at home will be high for them to reach the latter stages of Euro 2020 but emulating their 2018 success is likely to be a tall order with several stalwarts having hung up their international boots.

Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, midfielder Ivan Rakitic and striker Mario Mandzukic made way for younger players following Croatia’s impressive campaign at the World Cup in Russia and the Balkan nation have struggled to emulate those performances.

Cracks in the armour were laid bare eight weeks after their Russian adventure when the Croatians suffered a 6-0 Nations League drubbing by Spain and went on to finish bottom of their group behind England and the Spaniards.

Croatia will renew their rivalry with England when they clash in the opening Group D match on June 13 at Wembley, where they denied the Three Lions a berth at Euro 2008 with a memorable 3-2 win in November 2007.

The Croatians will also have fond memories of a more recent game, their 2-1 win over England in the 2018 World Cup semi-final after they came from behind to seal their biggest success as an independent nation.

The new-look team, however, will start as underdogs against the English this time and will in all likelihood face a three-way dogfight with Scotland and the Czech Republic for a berth in the knockout stages.

Croatia qualified relatively comfortably for the 24-nation tournament although their performances left something to be desired and they made a patchy start to their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

A shock 1-0 defeat at neighbours Slovenia in their opening game was followed by a laboured 1-0 home win over Cyprus and the subsequent 3-0 defeat of Malta merely papered over the cracks.

Coach Zlatko Dalic will again rely on the seemingly evergreen Luka Modric to pull the strings as Real Madrid’s 35-year-old playmaker has shown no signs of slowing down.

Dominik Livakovic has turned out to be a fitting replacement for Subasic between the posts, while Rangers’ Borna Barisic has taken over the left back spot for Ivan Strinic.

The departure of Rakitic, who moved back to his former club Sevilla last year after six trophy-laden seasons at Barcelona, has left a hole in the centre of midfield with Dalic having few strong options.

Dinamo Zagreb striker Bruno Petkovic has made a reasonably good start to his international career with six goals in 13 appearances since making his debut in 2019 but has yet to be tested on the bigger stage.

Much will also depend on whether the fringe players in the 26-man squad can be aces up Dalic’s sleeve, namely Vfl Wolfsburg winger Josip Brekalo and Dinamo Zagerb forward Mislav Orsic.

The 22-year old Brekalo has had an impressive season in the Bundesliga while Orsic grabbed the headlines with a sublime hat-trick against Tottenham Hotspur in this season’s Europa League.

Dinamo won that round of 16 tie 3-2 on aggregate after beating the Premier League side 3-0 in the return leg at home and Croatia will need to punch above their weight just as efficiently at Euro 2020 if they are to progress.