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World Cup 2018 team preview: Croatia's golden generation has one last chance

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group D is Croatia.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group D: 32.3%
Odds to advance: 75%
Odds to win World Cup: 2.9%
Elo rank: 17
Yahoo Sports power rank: 12

Our writers say: The men with the greatest jerseys in sports are also confounding. They have a midfield that most every other team in the tournament would envy. Elsewhere, they’re fair to average. But with a core that has a wealth of experience, a dawning realization that its run will be up soon and a manageable group, Croatia could make a surprise run to the quarterfinals – or possibly further. Leander Schaerlaeckens

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Luka Modric will be part of an outstanding Croatia midfield at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 13th (8 as Yugoslavia)
Best World Cup finish: 3rd place (1930 as Yugoslavia, 1998)
2014 finish: Group stage (1-0-2)
Qualifying: Finished second behind Iceland in Group I, beat Greece in playoff
Schedule: Nigeria (Saturday, June 16, 3 p.m., FS1), Argentina (Thursday, June 21, 2 p.m., Fox), Iceland (Tuesday, June 26, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group D preview]

Squad

Manager: Zlatko Dalic
Captain: Luka Modric (M)
Top players: Modric, Ivan Rakitic (M), Ivan Perisic (M), Marcelo Brozovic (M), Mateo Kovacic (M), Mario Mandzukic (F)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: Just look at the players in the projected starting lineup. Or, if you’re unfamiliar with the names, look at their clubs: Monaco; Atletico Madrid, Lokomotiv Moscow, Liverpool, Sampdoria; Fiorentina, Barcelona, Real Madrid; Inter Milan, Hoffenheim, Juventus. There’s a Real Madrid, a Napoli, a Bayer Leverkusen, a Hoffenheim, a Fiorentina and an Everton on the bench. Croatia, especially in midfield, is immensely talented for a team not widely considered a contender.

Why they’ll lose games: There’s a reason it’s not considered a contender, though. There’s a reason it couldn’t finish above Iceland in qualifying. Its attack, at times, can be weirdly disjointed. There’s no defined identity or tactical approach. Those are the exact type of problems that could leave Croatia vulnerable to Nigeria’s potent counter or Iceland’s resolute defensive blockade (again).

How they’ll play: Through midfield and out to Perisic, with Mandzukic or Andrej Kramaric acting almost as a wide striker, similar to the role both have played at their clubs. And finally, there’s a defined midfield structure, with Modric pushing more into a traditional No. 10 role, Rakitic creating from deep and Milan Badelj sitting beside him. Croatia is often wary about pressing too high, however, for fear of exposing an aging center back pairing.

Projected lineup (4-3-3): Danijel Subasic; Sime Vrsaljko, Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Strinic; Milan Badelj, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric; Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric, Mario Mandzukic.

There are a few things up in the air here. The midfield, long a vexing proposition, doesn’t appear to be one of them. Brozovic and Kovacic will have to settle for places on the bench. (Because Modric has settled into the more advanced role, you’ll often see the formation described as a 4-2-3-1.)

In defense, Lovren seems like the only sure-fire starter. Vrsaljko could play on the right or left. Demagoj Vida, the odd man out in our projection above, is a center back but could also deputize at fullback. Corluka has battled injuries and general physical deterioration, but has started both warmup friendlies and appears set to partner Lovren. Strinic could be dropped if Vrsaljko slides to the left and Vida fills in at right back.

In attack, Mandzukic and Kramaric can both played wide or up top. Or, perhaps, Nikola Kalinic or Ante Rebic could be preferred to Kramaric. But the Hoffenheim forward is easily the best of the three, especially on current form.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: Remember the ugly Euro 2016 scenes, when a subsection of Croatia fans showered the field with flairs and pyrotechnics? That was the foremost example of in-fighting in Croatian soccer. Some fans hate the federation. Politicians are involved, to the detriment of everyone. The team is caught in the crosshairs, and it often feels like the players are battling tooth and nail for each other, but not for anybody else. That certainly isn’t the best dynamic heading into a World Cup.

Why to root for them: The players deserve better than the circus around them. And this is probably the golden generation’s last shot to shine on the global stage.

Why to root against them: Those peripheral figures who aren’t helping don’t deserve to derive pleasure from the team’s success.

If you’re going to watch one game … The Argentina showdown will feature more quality than the vast majority of the 48 group games.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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