Zagreb

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.