Croatia are the perennial “dark horse favorites” at just about every major international tournament in which they compete — chock-full of stars plying their trade across Europe, but just far enough out of sight that you don’t take them seriously as you maybe should.
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All of that said, Croatia had reached the knockout stage in just twice in eight major international tournament appearances (World Cups and European Championships) in their 22 years of independent competition prior to qualifying for the round of 16 at this summer’s EURO 2016 in France.
The most impressive part of their Group D finale victory over Spain to finish top of the group? That they knocked off the two-time defending EURO winners without the services of inarguably two of their most important figures, Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic, both of whom were injured in the second group game, a 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic.
Set to face Portugal in the round of 16, though, their tournament lives on the line, Saturday (3 p.m. ET) would be the ideal time for Modric and Mandzukic to return to the fold, and according to head coach Ante Cacic, the duo is inching toward doing just that:
“I cannot say if they’re fit to play the full match, the whole 90 minutes. Everything looks good but I will decide tomorrow before the match.”
A victory over Portugal would set up a favorable quarterfinals matchup against the winner of Poland versus Switzerland (Saturday, 9 a.m. ET) next Thursday in Marseille.