Real Madrid schemer Luka Modric has been transformed by crafty Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic

Matt Jones 15/06/2018
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Croatia and Nigeria get their World Cup 2018 campaigns under way on Saturday, with both sides knowing victory is crucial with heavyweights Argentina lying in wait in Group D.

Critics will say both teams are vying for second place behind La Albiceleste, a position the Super Eagles occupied behind the might South Americans as they qualified for the knockout stages four years ago in Brazil.

Croatia, meanwhile, will be desperate to make the knockouts for the first time since finishing third on debut in 1998.

Here, we look at some of the key tactical talking points ahead of the encounter.

A MODIFIED BUT STILL MAGICAL MODRIC

Real Madrid star Luka Modric is the standout.

UAE football fans might well have a keen eye on this encounter, with former Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic leading Croatia at this World Cup.

After a trophy-laden three-year spell in charge of the Boss, Dalic was named Croatia chief in October 2017, with one of his boldest moves becoming arguably his greatest feat to date – transforming lynchpin Luka Modric’s role.

The Modric-Ivan Rakitic conundrum had proved a major stumbling block for Dalic’s predecessors, who struggled to harness both stars’ playmaking skills coherently at national team level.

It is a luxury for Croatia to have two of Europe’s most talented creative midfielders at their disposal, but as England managers found to their frustration with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, being blessed with brilliance in a certain department doesn’t mean instant success is sure to follow.

Dalic made a significant change immediately after taking over – just two days before the deciding group game in the qualifiers against Ukraine on October 9, 2017 – moving Real Madrid magician Modric to the No 10 position, a role he had rarely occupied since his early career.

Rakitic kept his place in one of the two anchor roles in the 4-2-3-1 formation and the move paid off handsomely and immediately.

Both contributed assists for Andrej Kramaric in a 2-0 win, while Modric was on the scoresheet a month later in a 4-1 thrashing of Greece – with a 0-0 draw days later in Piraeus securing passage to Russia. It was just Dalic’s third game in charge. Easy this coaching malarkey, isn’t it Zlatko?

KENNETH IS NUMERO OMERUO

Kenneth Omeruo

Kenneth Omeruo in action against England at Wembley earlier this month.

Coach Gernot Rohr has already seen the Super Eagles’ wings clipped before a ball has even been kicked with the news starting centre-back Leon Balogun is a major doubt for the Croatia game after failing to train with the rest of the Nigeria squad on Thursday.

The Brighton and Hove Albion defender went for a scan with the results as yet unknown.

That means ‘Chelsea’ central defender Kenneth Omeruo is set to partner William Troost-Ekong in the heart of defence.

Chelsea has been styled in quotation marks because Omeruo is billed as a Blues player and is still on the Stamford Bridge club’s books – despite not making a single appearance for the west Londoners since signing from Standard Liege in 2012.

He is one of the myriad young talents hoarded by the club under Roman Abramovich’s ownership, yet whose talent is honed elsewhere – with Omeruo plying his trade on loan over the last five seasons at Ado Den Haag, Middlesbrough and for the last three seasons in Turkey.

His likely withdrawal is a bitter blow for Berlin-born Balogun who missed the 2014 World Cup after breaking his foot on debut three months prior to the tournament, colliding with advertising signs on the side of the pitch in a friendly against Mexico.

Since his return he has been first choice. However, despite the distraction, Rohr will feel he has an able replacement in Omeruo who has won 20 more caps (39) than Balogun despite being four years his junior.

He is also a better passer than the Mainz man, with an 81.2 per cent pass completion rate in 28 games for Kasimpasa this season bettering Balogun’s 75.2 in 14 Bundesliga appearances.

Omeruo’s 7.3 clearances per game is also eye-catching compared to Balogun’s 4.4.

FORM A CONCERN FOR BOTH MANAGERS

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.

Since qualifying for the World Cup, both Dalic and Rohr will be far from roaring with pride at the performances of their sides in games leading up to the tournament.

Vatreni (The Blazers) have been very businesslike under Dalic early on, but were sloppy in defeat to Peru in March and thoroughly outclassed by Brazil, while they needed late goals to edge past fellow World Cup participants Senegal 2-1 in their final warm-up game on June 8.

They have also worryingly kept just two clean sheets in their last 11 games. And while they blossom with guile and steel in attack, they often leave themselves exposed at the back – with Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren hardly a defensive colossus.

Veteran centre-back Vedran Corluka, meanwhile, somehow remains a stalwart at international level.

Rohr will feel that his young squad, boasting plenty of pace and trickery in attack – Oghenekaro Etebo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi – can create and take chances in this clash.

Croatia do of course have their own star-studded attack, with Ivan Perisic, despite some off-colour performances in recent games, carrying a goal threat and likely to start with the talented young duo of Ante Rebic and Marko Pjaca available from the bench.

Strikers Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic are likely to swap positions in attack, meaning the centre-forward position is either occupied by a robust striker (Mandzukic) or a more flexible attacker (Kramaric).

Although Rohr has flirted with different formations – including a 3-5-2 used in November’s excellent 4-2 win over Argentina – it is clear he will opt for his trusted 4-2-3-1, which is based on defensive resilience and efficient counters.

17 06 2018 managers dalic v rohe

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Fernando Hierro should call his old Real Madrid pal Zinedine Zidane as Spain face Portugal

Chris Bailey 15/06/2018
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This old Iberian rivalry took a delicious twist on the eve of the World Cup after the Julen Lopetegui dismissal cast a shadow over Spain’s entire campaign.

Put Cristiano Ronaldo, his Real Madrid team-mates and Barcelona rivals on the same pitch, with a dash of Pepe, and fireworks may fly.

Will it result in goals? We’ve picked apart some of the most interesting talking points.

Have-a-go Hierro

KRASNODAR, RUSSIA - JUNE 13:  Fernando Hierro speaks to the media after he was appointed the new head coach of Spain during the Spain Press Conference ahead of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 on June 13, 2018 in Krasnodar, Russia.  (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Can you hear the drums, Fernando? That’ll be the sound of your heartbeat. Mere moments after Julen Lopetegui been booted out of camp for his tryst with Real, a former player whom many Madridistas are still besotted with ascended to the hotseat.

The job could have gone to Albert Celades – the current Under-21 manager – yet it feels like the Spanish federation have employed the best firefighter, if not the best coach, to rescue a campaign that is in danger of being razed to the ground before it even starts.

Hierro, Spain’s answer to Franz Beckenbauer in his pomp, is a totem that a disillusioned Spanish squad can rally around.

There was no point bringing in a Vicente del Bosque or a Luis Enrique on a temporary basis – the tactical implementation had been done far, far in advance of the coming month.

Hierro would do well to call up his old Real chum Zinedine Zidane. In an irony overload the 50-year-old became Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant when Zidane left to coach Madrid’s Castilla side in 2016. Hierro then had a brief stint at Oviedo before his reappointment as Spain’s sporting director last year.

Zidane motivated the Madrid’s Spain contingent to almost impossible heights over the last three years. You better hope those same stars shine bright for you, Fernando.

Ronaldo can rely on both Silva and Guedes

Goncalo Guedes

Andre Silva had scored more goals for Portugal by October than he’d muster for Serie A all season.

On one hand that illustrates how rotten he was in his debut season for AC Milan, and on the other that he’s really rather good when donning his national team’s colours.

Playing alongside Ronaldo, or perhaps at best in the great man’s shadow, Silva has fed well on the bits and pieces left to him from Portugal’s effective, if predictable, play out wide. The 22-year-old has proven the antidote to the country’s epidemic of average-strikers-who-aren’t-called-Ronaldo (though Eder proved okay for that one game in Paris).

There’s a wrinkle in Silva’s World Cup hopes, however, and it goes by the name of Goncalo Guedes. The 21-year-old has sent lightning bolts down on La Mestalla with his wonderful wing play for Valencia on loan from PSG yet intriguingly Portugal coach Fernando Santos, set on playing Ricardo Quaresma and Bernardo on the wings, has played him up top in recent friendlies.

Two goals in the 3-0 win over Algeria has Silva pulling nervously at his collar. Chances are that the Milan misfit, with his superior size and tactical awareness through the centre as a former midfielder, will keep his place in a rigid 4-4-2. Santos will take Guedes over Eder on the bench any day, though.

Attritional battle of Iberia

Portugal's striker Helder Postiga (R) ce

Portugal and Spain have not met on a football battleground for six years yet, even in a three-game cluster when La Roja were at the peak of powers, this clash was never a one-sided affair.

At the World Cup in 2012, the Portuguese missed a hatful of first-half chances with Hugo Almeida (put him in the average strikers bracket) the main culprit. A David Villa goal was the only the difference in the quarter-final.

A few months later Portugal thumped Spain 4-0 in a friendly, a not-so-average Helder Postiga that night rattling in twice, and most recently at Euro 2012 Spain needed penalties before going onto defend their crown.

Undoubtedly, then, Spain have found the going more tough against Portugal and it’s little wonder with the two nations only divided by a border.

It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which Portugal, sat deep to mask their deficiencies at the back and employing a meticulous defensive structure, could rattle a Spanish attack that may be thinking a nanosecond too slow given the tumultuous events of the past few days.

This’ll be an intriguing game – but likely in the absence of many goals.

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Steven Gerrard backs England to overcome World Cup scrutiny

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Steven Gerrard

Former England captain Steven Gerrard believes Gareth Southgate’s players can cope with World Cup scrutiny – even if he claims some of it has already overstepped the mark.

The squad arrived in Russia this week with expectations well below the hype which has accompanied previous tournaments.

Gerrard thinks that could benefit the squad, although he insists players will still be aware they carry the hopes of millions of fans.

“What will help England is I don’t feel there is huge pressure or expectation like previous years,” Gerrard told Press Association Sport.

“But players are aware there is that extra spotlight on them.

“It is on the TV and players have their phones and social media so you are not going to get away from what’s being said at home.

“This is why these players are the best because they should be able to handle the scrutiny and that kind of pressure.”

However, players can find themselves facing attention for other reasons – as witnessed by the focus on Raheem Sterling‘s gun tattoo.

Gerrard said: “I think the treatment of Raheem has been slightly over the top.

“He is a great kid and I think he is playing terrifically well and I’d prefer if people focused on his form on the pitch, that’s what’s important.

“He is going to represent us, so it is disappointing when our people go a little bit over the top but players have to accept that responsibility because you are representing the country.”

Expectations may be lower this time around but Gerrard believes Southgate’s bold approach and decision-making will only benefit the squad.

Southgate made some big calls when selecting his 23-man World Cup squad and he is trying to get his players to take more risks on the pitch.

“I’ve been very impressed with Gareth,” added the new Rangers boss.

“‘Cut-throat’ is a bit too harsh but I like the way he is quite clear in what he wants and the decisions he makes.

“Sometimes in the position as a manager – obviously I am going into the big time as a manager, if you like – you have to make decisions that people don’t like or don’t want but unfortunately that is the business.

“Gareth is definitely capable and has shown he is prepared to make big decisions; whether they are right or wrong only time will tell.

“I certainly think you have to be your own man and you have to have a lot of belief and trust in the staff around you.

“You have to be brave enough to tackle those big issues whatever arises – and I am ready to do that.”

While victory in Russia may be unlikely, Gerrard hopes the team can return with some pride.

“I think it is a big ask (to win) but everyone in the tournament has that fighting chance,” he said.

“With a slice of luck, Gareth’s bravery and some really good players in the squad, I am hoping they will come back and everyone is looking at them proudly.”

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