Croatia should return to World Cup contention, even without Luka Modrić

LUSAIL, Qatar — What Croatia has done here is extraordinary.

A team from a small country with a population roughly the size of Oklahoma (3.9 million when you add up) battled to back-to-back World Cup semifinals. Some of the world’s biggest countries, with stronger footballing cultures and resources, cannot say the same.

In 2018, Zlatko Dalic’s side lost to France in the final with an experienced squad full of players who played for Europe’s top clubs. Four years later, Croatia reached another semi-final, where they fell to Lionel Messi and Argentina 3-0 on Tuesday night at the Lusail Stadium, with 18 new players, many playing their first World Cup.

Croatia’s trip to Qatar has come to an end – save for Saturday’s third-place game (10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) – but the team will be back in the tournament.

Luka Modrić, the 37-year-old captain, has probably played his last World Cup. But he leaves behind a team that has many more. There is 20-year-old defender Joško Gvardiol, who has been one of the best players in this tournament. Goalkeeper Dominic Livakovic, 27, was a hero in a penalty shoot-out against Brazil, although his first-half yellow card earned Argentina a penalty, which Messi took and took. There is Mateo Kovačić, 28, and Marcelo Brozović, 30, who alongside Modrić have been a ruthlessly organized midfield trio. They usually don’t give up the ball once they have it and drag defenders down like they did in the first 30 minutes against Argentina.

“We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić said afterwards, referring to the aging of a “golden generation” after this tournament. “We have a great team and many players with great potential.

“It would have been great if we had won [the World Cup] and this had been a peak achievement of our generation.”

Andrej Kramarić, Ivan Perišić, Marko Livaja and all the goals for Croatia | FIFA World Cup 2022

Andrej Kramarić, Ivan Perišić, Marko Livaja and all the goals for Croatia |  FIFA World Cup 2022

Check out all of Croatia’s FIFA World Cup 2022 goals so far. Goals from Croatia players include: Andrej Kramarić, Ivan Perišić, Marko Livaja, Bruno Petkovic and Lovro Majer.

Last week, before Croatia upset Brazil in the quarter-finals, Dalić was asked if he could compare this World Cup team to the one he ran four years ago. While most coaches loathe comparisons, Dalić said this team was a “new national team” with so many new faces.

“[In 2018] we had a selection that played [together] 10 years in a row, they were playing in the best leagues, in the best clubs, and that’s not the situation with our current team,” said Dalić.

“We need time to develop and mature. This new team still has to prove itself. I think the World Cup is a great opportunity for that. We have great quality players, but in terms of the club game, in 2018, we were a more prestigious team.”

During his time in Qatar, Croatia was disciplined and relentless. Although criticized for having what some consider a “boring” style of play, his “refuse to lose” mantra carried him through two knockout games decided by a penalty shootout. First against Japan in the round of 16 and then against tournament favorite Brazil in the quarter-finals. Dalić scoffed at the idea that his players were exhausted, saying this week that “strength is not an issue”.

This was also evident four years ago. In 2018, Croatia beat Argentina for the first time in their second match 3-0 to win their group. He then proceeded to win three qualifiers that went into overtime, two of which were decided by penalties. Finding ways to win, even if it takes more than 90 minutes, is part of Croatia’s DNA. If Croatia had been able to possess the ball, break down Argentina and disrupt Messi, which all opponents hoped to do against The Albiceleste — They could have a chance in overtime or PK.

The problem with this was that Argentina were aggressive in their attack. “We didn’t have the quality we needed,” Dalic said. Croatia struggled to control the game, made mistakes and “didn’t make any specific chances” on goal, Dalic said.

Argentina led 2-0 at half-time thanks to a penalty converted by Messi and a beautiful volley from 22-year-old Julián Álvarez five minutes later. Alvarez got the ball in his own half, dribbled through the middle of Croatia’s defense and went straight through Livakovic to score. He was also the one who equalized a foul that earned the Albiceleste their spot kick.

“At that point it was done,” Dalic said.

And then Messi and Alvarez combined again for the third dagger goal in the 69th minute.

“Nothing should be said about Messi’s qualities,” Dalic said. “For the last 15 years he has been the best player in the world. He marks the difference in quality for this Argentinian team.

“He’s the real Messi we’ve been waiting to see.”

Argentina vs Croatia Highlights | FIFA World Cup 2022

Argentina vs Croatia Highlights |  FIFA World Cup 2022

Argentina and Croatia met in the semi-finals of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Before 2018, Croatia had never made it out of the group stage of a World Cup. His run to the final was completely unexpected. And despite that performance, Croatia were also not a hot option for a run in 2022. Ahead of this big semi-final at the Lusail Stadium, Dalic spoke of his team’s “fighting spirit” and said that if the his team beat Argentina, it would be Croatia’s best win of all time. They knocked out Brazil, so why not Argentina too?

“Today was not easy and the players are sad,” Dalic said. “It’s hard for them. They feel like they could have done more.”

Argentina was the most talented team and it showed. Croatia will return. But it still probably won’t be the favorite.

Read more from the World Cup:


Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in the spring of 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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