Croatia's defeat was their first in their opening group match at a UEFA European Championship.
Croatia reached the final of the 2018 edition of the World Cup, impressing one and all with their sublime performances. The players performed as a unit, making their presence felt with excellent gameplay. The opposition was taken back by the ruthlessness and intensity in the performances of the footballers, as they charged forward to win every ball and break down a potential attack. Two players who helped streamline Croatia’s gameplay and develop this level of finesse were Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic. While the team failed to prevail in the final against France, the manner in which they fought against the odds with a desire to excel at any cost earned praise and appreciation from the masses.
Mandzukic’s physical strength, versatility, mobility, fitness and ability in the air was considered exceptional, with the footballer nicknamed Dilkos meaning brash by Miroslav Blazevic. This was in reference to the striker’s physical attributes, high work rate, top defensive contribution and immense stamina. Mandzukic led from the front like a leader should, stepping up with quality performances. The team followed suit, emulating the fine standards set by him. Similar Rakitic made his presence felt as a talented, intelligent and hard-working midfielder with excellent technique, close control, vision and an ability to read the game. The former Barcelona midfielder stood out with his versatile gameplay and ability to excel in any position.
Roma manager Jose Mourinho is usually reluctant with his praise. However, Mourinho hailed Rakitic as one of the “most underrated players in the world”, hailing his contributions for Barcelona.
“Before I leave let me tell something, because I want to say this for a long, long time. For me, Rakitic is one of the most underrated players in the world. He’s a fantastic player at every level. He does defensive work on the right side to compensate [for Lionel] Messi, he runs miles, in ball possession he’s fantastic, he’s simple, he’s effective,” he said as quoted by beIN Sports.
One of Croatia’s most important triumphs in the 2018 World Cup was in the semi-final against England, which enabled them to qualify for the nation’s first-ever final. Mandzukic and Rakitic played a crucial role in the comeback 2-1 win, with the former scoring in extra time, having been aided through some fine gameplay by the midfielder. However, when Croatia took the field in their Euro 2020 group stage opener against England, they did so without the presence of two of their most vital players in the last decade after they opted to bow out of the game. The same reflected on the scoreline with the team lacking bite in attack, as Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic struggled to dominate the opposition.
Croatia seemed satisfied with simply maintaining possession of the ball and dominating the tempo rather than threatening the England keeper Jordan Pickford. While the approach could have been deemed acceptable in the opening period, they failed to build on the domination after the break, allowing the English players to regain the initiative. Raheem Sterling took due advantage of this, scoring the opener which ultimately ended up as the winner. Manager Zlatko Dalic seemed to lack a Plan-B and an edge to the gameplay despite the presence of a top midfield dynamo in Luka Modric. Seven of the players who had featured in the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup made an appearance in the clash, which does not permit the rebuilding of the squad as being highlighted as a viable reason behind the debacle.
Dalic hailed England for pulling off a fine win, terming it as a difficult match.
“Congratulations to England for victory, but also to our players. It was a difficult match, it was hot. As we expected, we had to repel the pressure in the first 20 minutes. After that, we had an element of control, more or less. Then there was one mistake. We have talked for seven days about not getting caught out of position. They exploited the space and scored,” he said while speaking to HRT.
“In attack we didn’t show much quality, but we were playing against England, who are a terrific team. We were their equal most of the time. This is encouraging to me and it will be better in the forthcoming matches. Gvardiol played a quality match. We wanted some depth to support Rebić. Everything in that aspect was good, but just wasn’t enough,” added Dalic.
Mandzukic announced his retirement from the game in 2018 with Rakitic making the decision last year. Croatia have enjoyed ample time going into the tournament and will need to develop an alternate style of gameplay that can enable them to record wins, in the absence of the duo. The lack of firepower and the resultant detrimental impact on the points table can only be sustained so long.