Igor Štimac

Could Croatia really have done better against Iceland?

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On Friday evening, Iceland and Croatia played out a 0-0 draw in the chilly air of Reykjavik. Iceland, with a population barely over 300,000, were meant to be the tiny minnows in the matchup, a side that should’ve been easily beaten by a Croatia team featuring players in some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Instead, Iceland held on tight to keep the visitors from scoring, despite going down to ten men shortly after the restart.

The hosts had also lost one of their brightest players when injured Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson came off just before the break. Veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen replaced him, but barely had time to make an impact before moving to midfield to help stem the Croatia attack. Iceland’s compact organization and disciplined defending were already on show during the first half, but were certainly put to the test by a relentless Croatia in the second. Iceland were also helped by the heroic Hannes Thór Halldórsson, with the KR Reykjavik goalkeeper putting on an immense display to stifle shots from Ivan Rakitic, Ivica Olic, Ivan Perisic and Darijo Srna, just to name a few.

To the detached observer, there was little fault to be found in Croatia’s play. Perhaps Eduardo could have done better with his shot in the second minute. Maybe Perisic should have found a way to put in a better strike in the 40th. But their second half display was rather brilliant, with pretty passing, fancy footwork and yes, even some sharp shots on target. Yet Iceland had ten men behind the ball, and that, combined with Halldórsson’s flying saves, prevented the Croats from going home with a win.

But Croatia sees it rather differently. After all, they were supposed to head home clutching an easy victory, and have Tuesday’s leg in Zagreb be a matter of routine. Instead, the draw, particularly against ten men, seemed much more like a loss. Now, the Croats are a-flutter, and the media is in a tizzy. Why, they ask, is this side unable to beat such a weak team, especially after a sending off?

The media attack feels all to familiar to fans of any country that hasn’t lived up to high expectations placed upon them. It followed a particular rhythm: blame the coach for poor player selection. Judge tactics, and find them wanting. Decry the performances of a star player, and state that he doesn’t show up for his country the way he does for his club.

Yet buried in the media onslaught is a small grain of truth. Many expected more from newly appointed manager Niko Kovač. The unpopular Igor Štimac was relieved from his duties after Croatia failed to qualify directly for Brazil, and better things were expected from Croatia’s former captain. Instead, Kovač stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation — a formation that Croatia does not have the wide players necessary to execute well.

It was the endless tinkering from Štimac (well, it was many things, but this was the major tactical complaint) that brought forth so much criticism. It’s what saw Croatia, who looked so good in the early qualifying matches, lose their momentum in the final matches. Štimac’s selection and tactics saw his side fall twice to Scotland and allow Serbia back into the match for a draw.

With just one match left to secure their trip to Brazil, what Croatia needs now is simplicity. The blame does not lie with Luka Modric, and whether or not he steps up for his country the way he does for Real Madrid. It’s not on Srna, and his way of encouraging his team. Injuries or lack of talent cannot be blamed. Instead, it is up to Kovač to get back to basics in Zagreb: a solid, simple formation (yes, most likely the 4-4-2) that allows Croatia to soak up a rare Iceland attack, while enabling them to get forward quickly enough to perhaps get behind the organized Iceland defense.

A header from Mandžukić. A backheel from Modric to set up a shot from Perisic. A stunning free kick from Srna. It’s possible. But only if Croatia leave the Tinker Toys behind in Reykjavik.

UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Four matches, four reasons to watch

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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Friday brings the first leg of the two-legged playoffs to decide the final four European sides that will spend next summer at the World Cup. Besides the fact that it’s a Friday afternoon and work seems unappealing, what makes these four matches worth watching?

Iceland vs. Croatia2 p.m. ET
Reason: resurgence 
The evening’s European entertainment — at least, its meaningful entertainment — starts off in Reykjavík, with Iceland hoping to become the smallest nation to compete in Brazil. It would be an interesting narrative and it would certainly warm the hearts of the 320,137 Icelanders to see their side head off to its first ever World Cup, but Iceland has a rather ridiculously complicated task ahead. While a result might be possible in Reykjavík, it’s hard to see Croatia losing out over both legs.

The numbers tell a different story: Iceland are unbeaten in their last four matches, while Croatia lost to Scotland twice, fell to Belgium, and let Serbia come back for a draw. In other words, the Croats don’t appear to be giants. But they’ve sent coach Igor Štimac packing, and Niko Kovač is unlikely to make the same mistakes. Kovač, a popular former captain for his country, has promised to right the sinking ship, plugging the holes drilled in by Štimac. Croatia is a side that needs a huge confidence boost and, should Niko follow through on giving it to them, will likely have no problem rediscovering their form and dispensing with Iceland.

Greece vs. Romania, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: doggedness 
What to look for in this match? Relentless pragmatism. Greece might be hyperaware that the only reason they haven’t already booked their ticket to Brazil is because their goal difference was inferior to that of Bosnia, but that doesn’t mean they’re likely to suddenly shift into attack mode. The Greeks have been stodgily defending since 2004 (ok, likely since before then, but that’s when we all really started to pay attention) and will continue to do so in order to reach their second consecutive World Cup.

Romania, on the other hand, haven’t been to the party since 1998. They finished nine points behind group leaders the Netherlands, and just barely edged out Hungary and Turkey. The visitors are missing a couple key players, including Tottenham defender Vlad Chiricheș, while Manchester City goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon may step in for Ciprian Tătărușanu, whose fitness is questionable. This close to getting on that plane to Brazil, the Romanians are highly unlikely to turn up the heat, preferring instead not to put a toe out of place.

Portugal vs. Sweden, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: heroics
We all know what we’re watching here, right? This is a battle between two superstars and their two superegos, and the world will be a less-than-perfect place when one of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic has to stay at home rather than take to the pitch in Brazil. The two superheros have already scored 10 goals in qualifying, including Ronaldo’s hattrick against Northern Ireland. Ibra’s been more consistent, scoring in five of Sweden’s ten matches. But both can score absolute jaw-dropping goals, at seemingly any time. The real question here is, why would you not watch?

Ukraine vs. France, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: neediness
France had to have known that, as soon as they were drawn in a group with Spain, a trip to the playoff round was almost inevitable. Still les bleus were impressive in the first stage, losing just once –to Spain, of course — and conceding just six goals. But Ukraine, too, did well to make their mark, finishing just a point behind England. Ukraine also scored 28 goals, but 17 of those came against San Marino, so don’t expect a flurry of action in front of goal.

It’s been nearly 20 years since France missed out on a World Cup, and it’s hard to believe that they won’t make it to Brazil. Their squad is much steadier than it was in South Africa, and the talent on display gives little reason to believe Ukraine will make it through. But the hosts will be fueled by pure, raw bitterness: in 1998, 2002 and 2010, Ukraine were eliminated via the playoffs. Surely it must be their time?