Croatia must embrace the past and other talking points ahead of Denmark knockout clash

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Croatia will look to build on the momentum earned from a perfect Group D campaign when they battle Christian Eriksen’s unbeaten Denmark in World Cup 2018’s round of 16.

Zlatko Dalic’s men historically won all three matches, including a 3-0 humiliation of Lionel Messi and Argentina, to reinforce their status as dark horses.

This will be tested by ‘Danish Dynamite’. They proved in the competition’s only goalless draw, against France, that the Croats cannot expect a walkover at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Sunday.

Here are the talking points:

HAND OF HISTORY

An achievement now two decades old was supposed to cast the largest shadow over this campaign for Croatia.

The charge from Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Co to France 1998’s semi-finals dominates the conversation. Indeed, the current crop are the first to escape the groups on the global stage since those Halcyon days.

But of more pertinence is Euro 2016’s rank disappointment.

Under divisive predecessor Ante Cacic, the Vatreni promisingly finished ahead of holders Spain in the group stages. Then in the round of 16, Ricardo Quaresma popped up during extra time to deflate all hopes and send eventual winners Portugal through.

“It’s all great for the history books in Croatia but if we don’t win against Denmark, when someone asks you what you did, what can you say? Nothing,” Dalic said on Wednesday.

“Our first goal for this World Cup was to pass the group stage but that doesn’t really satisfy myself or the team. We have Denmark against us now and that’s the moment of truth.”

A sizeable 17 members of Dalic’s 23-man squad were present on that mournful day in Lens.

With an average age of 27.9-years-old, a figure advanced by talisman Luka Modric (32) and Ivan Rakitic (30), a better chance to repeat the antics of Suker’s hallowed generation might not appear.

LIGHTING THE FUSE FOR ‘DANISH DYNAMITE’

The time has come for Denmark to live up to their explosive nickname.

‘Danish Dynamite’ was in short supply during a run to second spot in Group C that was only lit up by Eriksen’s sustained brilliance.

Denmark scored just two goals, plus the soporific scoreless stalemate against France produced a cacophony of boos at Luzhniki Stadium last week.

Their average of 8.3 attempts on goal per game was the least in the pool, as was average possession of 44.3 per cent and pass accuracy of 79.5 per cent.

At the other end of the pitch, only Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa (17) has been called on to make more saves than Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel (14).

A door has been bolted and the lock remains loose. For head coach Age Hareide, his team must step things up a level to stand any chance of advancement.

He said: “I’m sure the fact we now go into a stage of the tournament where it’s cup ties will make it more free, and not so constrained.

“There’s absolutely everything to play for now, and everything needs to be ‘used up’ during the 90 minutes, and not over three matches.”

Going up through the gears should not be an alien feeling.

Denmark produced one of the European qualification processes’ most impressive results when they dismantled Poland 4-0. In the play-offs, the 5-1 triumph in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland further evidenced their latent attacking prowess.

An explosive display could yet follow in Nizhny Novgorod.

DELANEY’S WALKING A TIGHTROPE

Fine margins should decide this contest.

No player can afford any distractions, least of which is Denmark defensive midfielder Thomas Delaney. Borussia Dortmund’s new €20 million (Dh86m) signing from Werder Bremen must break up Croatia’s passing carousel for his nation to stand any hope of progression.

The 26-year-old is one a trio of Danes who are a booking away from a suspension, ahead of the quarter-final’s amnesty. This fact cannot cloud his mind when challenges are required, especially with veteran replacement William Kvist sidelined with a punctured lung.

The former FC Copenhagen man has registered his nation’s joint-second-highest tackles per game of two. Plus, he leads the way with 1.7 interceptions and 2.7 fouls per match.

Impressive statistics that must be extended against Modric and Rakitic.

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Christian Eriksen against Luka Modric is a fight to relish plus other Denmark v Croatia key battles

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Croatia will look to build on the momentum earned from a perfect Group D campaign when they battle Christian Eriksen’s unbeaten Denmark in World Cup 2018’s round of 16.

Zlatko Dalic’s men historically won all three matches, including a 3-0 humiliation of Lionel Messi and Argentina, to reinforce their status as dark horses for the title.

This will be tested by ‘Danish Dynamite’. They proved in the competition’s only goalless draw, against France, that the Croats cannot expect a walkover at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Sunday.

Here are the key battles:

LUKA MODRIC V CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN

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Real Madrid schemer Modric has a legitimate shout to be classed as the player of this World Cup.

The refined 32-year-old struck a penalty in the opening 2-0 defeat of Nigeria and fired home a fizzed effort in the rout of Argentina.

Knockout competition has brought out the best in him with Los Blancos and he must now do the same again with his country.

Few players are more central to the success of their nations than Eriksen.

The Tottenham playmaker lashed in one of the goals of the tournament against Australia, plus previously teed up Yussuf Poulsen for the winner versus Peru.

If the current Tottenham hero can outshine the club’s previous conductor, Modric, then Denmark can hold hope of just a second-ever quarter-final berth.

MARIO MANDZUKIC V SIMON KJAER

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Juventus front man Mandzukic provides a handful for any centre-back in Russia, but he’s yet to trouble the scorers.

The angular 32-year-old runs all day and fights for every ball. He’ll be disappointed that this hasn’t translated into any goals, with his profligate display against Argentina one to particularly rue.

A pitch battle with Sevilla centre-back Simon Kjaer should be explosive.

Denmark’s captain is the cement that holds their defence together.

Kjaer is a seasoned campaigner, moving past the 80-cap mark in Russia. His dogged traits saw him relish the competition provided by France target man Olivier Giroud, although his average of one tackle per game is only Denmark’s joint-seventh best.

Denmark kept clean sheets in two out of their three Group C fixtures. More of the same is a necessity.

IVAN PERISIC V PIONE SISTO

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Few sights in football are more feared by full-backs than Perisic receiving the ball with space to run into.

The Internazionale winger glides across the turf at pace and is eminently capable of lashing home, as against Iceland. A return of one accurate cross from nine attempts is disappointing and should soon improve.

Concentration will be key if Denmark right-back Henrik Dalsgaard is to shut out Perisic’s threat.

The World Cup is yet to see the best of Celta Vigo winger Sisto.

A return of nine assists and five goals showed his ability in La Liga last term. But in Russia, there’s been none of either and only one smart pass that sparked Poulsen’s goal against Peru.

This talent should flicker into life at some point. His average of 3.7 dribbles per game points to the danger posed.

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Lionel Messi's Argentina at the bottom of our World Cup round-of-16 power rankings

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The business end of the World Cup is upon us!

There are 16 teams left and ready to battle it out in the round of 16.

But, from what we have seen so far, which teams have impressed and which teams have faltered?

Here, we rate the nations that made it out of the group stages on the basis of their respective campaigns.

Agree? Or disagree? Share your thoughts with us via Twitter and Facebook.

16) Argentina
Say what you want about La Albiceleste, they are still alive and in with a chance of reaching the quarter-finals. It looks unlikely that their World Cup journey will stretch beyond the second round, and if that is the case, justice has well and truly been done. Jorge Sampaoli’s men have been all at sea in virtually every department and can consider themselves fortunate to be in the reckoning.

Lionel Messi, his goal against Nigeria aside, has struggled to make an impact – at least on the pitch (in the technical area he has) – with this Argentinean side getting the sympathy vote based on the Barcelona icon’s popularity.

Lionel Messi netted his first goal at the tournament on Tuesday night.

Lionel Messi came alive with a goal against Nigeria.

15) Japan
Group H was an open affair and the Samurai Blue did little to convince they will progress much further, especially after Thursday’s sluggish 1-0 defeat to a beleaguered Poland.

The onus on their golden boy from a ‘Golden Generation’, Keisuke Honda, at the age of 32 has been evident while they have lacked quality. The expectations for Japan were low going into the tournament so a second-from-bottom ranking shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Japan qualified by the skin of their teeth after a farcical end to their 1-0 loss.

Japan celebrate going through to the knockouts.

14) Switzerland
The Swiss have a never-say-die attitude and are a team built on togetherness. Flashes of brilliance from the left boot of Xherdan Shaqiri will be essential moving forward, but the European outfit can be happy with their lot. It may appear that putting them at 14th is harsh but they are limited as a team.

Granit Xhaka celebrates his stunning equaliser for the Swiss.

Granit Xhaka is also important in the midfield.

13) Denmark

Would have expected to finish second in their Group C pool and were far too reliant on Christian Eriksen’s supply line and Yussuf Poulsen’s goal return.

Hard-working, well organised but lacking that cutting edge to step it up when it matters and prone to a defensive lapse, a last-16 match-up against Croatia will prove too much.

A cut above the rest: Christian Eriksen.

12) Colombia
They edged their way into the knockout stages at the expense of Senegal, in a final game where they were largely second-best despite winning 1-0.

James Rodriguez’s fitness going forward is huge and with England to come, their reliance on his individual talent as well as Yerry Mina’s input from centre-back (he has scored two goals) will prove too much.

A side that is pleasing enough to watch – as we saw during their dismantling of Poland – but perhaps more was expected.

Yerry Mina is the hero for Colombia.

Yerry Mina has been a towering presence.

11) Mexico
Dreams of securing a first-place group finish and three wins on the bounce were ruthlessly distinguished by Sweden but that should not detract from the bright points we have seen from this side – Hirving Lozano’s winner against Germany being the most memorable.

Their displays warrant a lower mid-table berth here.

Hirving Lozano.

A man destined for big things: Hirving Lozano.

10) Sweden
The Scandinavian outfit haven’t missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic one bit and have been the embodiment of a feel-good story at this World Cup.

There are no thrills or spills about Janne Andersson’s defensive system and the way Sweden soak up the opposition’s possession and look to steal a goal, but it is a formula that is working.

In their opening match, Sweden found a way past South Korea with spirit and resolve, and did not deserve to lose in the dying embers to Germany. They did bounce back though and blow away Mexico. There is a sense that this team is altogether and singing from the same hymn sheet, which certainly bodes well for the knockouts.

Sweden fans are delighted with their team.

9) Portugal
The reliance on the impressive Cristiano Ronaldo has been stark as has been Ricardo Quaresma’s arrow-like precision with his right boot. As the footballing world saw during their Euro 2016 win, Portugal have a habit of upsetting the rest and just not going away.

However, the group stages were a struggle and once Ronaldo’s frustration boiled over, the Iran match could have gone either way. Portugal’s effective counter-attack system and focus on allowing their opponents have possession is though ready-made for knockout competition.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored against Morocco after netting a hat-trick versus Spain.

Four goals to his name so far: Cristiano Ronaldo.

8) France
Didier Deschamps has been the tinkerman throughout the tournament and still doesn’t seem to know what his best system is, nor which personnel to fill his favoured 4-2-3-1. However, Les Bleus’ progress has been solid if not spectacular and they seem to be finding their range at a crucial juncture.

Antoine Griezmann’s deployment to a deep-lying forward role between Olivier Giroud has given them much-needed punch at the top of the pitch while Paul Pogba has been good so far, and should produce more. The signs are positive but there is still plenty of work to do.

All smiles: Midfield star Paul Pogba has been good but not great…yet.

7) Russia
The pressure of being host nation is not an easy burden. Yes, Group A proved to be very favourable for Russia but they showed a greater attacking threat than many thought they would see.

Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev will need to fire on all cylinders if they are to progress against Spain but they are in a position now whereby going any further in this competition can be viewed simply as a bonus.

The 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Uruguay should be viewed as more of an isolated incident given they were under-strength but there is no doubt they are vulnerable at the back with 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich.

The hosts haven’t cracked under pressure.

6) Spain
La Roja struggled to find their fluent best throughout Group B but will be relieved to be well and truly alive in this World Cup given the chaos that overshadowed their build-up to the tournament.

Fernando Hierro has steadied the ship but challenged his players to improve ahead of the knockout stages. Isco has been a standout with his obvious quality while the Spaniards have always looked in the game when Diego Costa is on the pitch, making up somewhat for David De Gea’s shakiness in goal.

Isco has been Spain’s best player in Russia

5) England
Few teams come under such spotlight and criticism as the Three Lions do at major tournaments. It was, therefore, a luxury for England fans and pundits alike to be discussing whether or not they wanted to beat Belgium and win Group G.

Losing at the Kaliningrad Stadium, and as a result claiming second spot, has certainly given them a more favourable route through the tournament.

Victories over Tunisia and Panama did not provide the most acid of tests but Gareth Southgate’s men have looked strong, buoyed by Harry Kane’s profligacy, efficient set-piece play and pace in abundance in attack, something that has not been seen in recent years.

Optimism springs eternal for the Three Lions.

4) Uruguay
A team you would want on your side to go into battle with. The South American giants are a tough nut to crack and sauntered through a relatively straight-forward group with three wins from three.

They were far from fluent in 1-0 victories over Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and it was easy enough brushing aside Russia. Write Luis Suarez off at your peril, the Barcelona star can still produce the goods and with the likes of Diego Godin – one of the world’s best defenders – and young upstart Rodrigo Bentancur, Uruguay have shown a clinical brand of football.

Critics have been quick to attack 31-year-old Suarez.

3) Belgium
On paper, Group G played two lesser lights in Tunisia and Panama, and so it proved. But the Red Devils got their business done with little fuss, winning all three pool matches, including a win over England with a much-changed line-up implemented by Roberto Martinez.

Topping their quartet, on paper at least, has given them a harder passage moving forward – a plot line that has been well-documented. Eden Hazard’s fitness moving forward will be crucial but he seems to have shrugged off a knock going into the Japan game. Belgium will be very content with their position at this stage.

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez - to rest or not to rest

Good job: Roberto Martinez is a man on a mission.

2) Brazil
The most decorated team in World Cup history got off to a sluggish start, drawing to Switzerland, but have since shown powers of strength and resolve.

Brazil left it late to overcome Costa Rica 2-0 and then eased to victory over Serbia. Topping Group E was seen as a foregone conclusion beforehand and they made sure they did.

There is a feeling that, among the powerhouse nations, Tite’s team are already dining out at the top table and are locked in for the courses to come. Philippe Coutinho’s star form so far – the Barcelona schemer has bagged two goals and an assist – is an ominous sign for the rest of the tournament.

Neymar has been overshadowed by Coutinho.

1) Croatia
The Blazers would have been a pre-tournament pick of ‘Dark Horses’ for many. However, they have gone about their business with plenty of substance and not shied away in the shadows.

Pitted in Group D – which later became known as the Group of Death with Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland making up the quarter – Zlatko Dalic’s men won all three matches comfortably and conceded just one goal.

Talismanic skipper Luka Modric and Barcelona enforcer Ivan Rakitic have been two stars in a side that can now rightfully be billed among the favourites.

Luka Modric has been arguably the player of the tournament thus far.

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