Croatia welcome Wales to Osijek on Saturday for what already seems like it’s going to be a crunch clash in terms of Euro 2020 qualification.
Both sides began their road to the European Championships with victories earlier this year. Croatia needed a late Andrej Kramaric goal to edge Azerbaijan 2-1 while the Dragons similarly earned a narrow 1-0 win over Slovakia.
Croatia were then stunned by Hungary in their second game, losing 2-1, which already puts Zlatko Dalic’s side on the back foot in a tricky Group E where four sides – Azerbaijan aside – will be targeting automatic progression.
Ahead of the game, we pick out three talking points.
LUKA AND GARETH NEED BALE OUT
This game is seismic for both nations, but there’s also a fascinating individual battle brewing beneath between each side’s star men, both of whom have endured difficulties this year.
You’d expect Gareth Bale to be feeling either relief or restlessness ahead of this seismic Group E clash following a turbulent 2018/19 club season.
It was billed as possibly a career campaign for the 29-year-old and he was primed to take over the Real Madrid mantle vacated by Cristiano Ronaldo, who turned his attention to Turin after a decade of dominance at the Bernabeu.
It boded well. Bale scored a brace to secure a third straight Champions League for Los Blancos 12 months ago – a stunning bicycle kick one of the competition’s greatest ever goals.
After years in the shadows he was ready to be the leading man. Except he still, somehow, ended up playing second fiddle to a resurgent Karim Benzema, who scored 30 goals in all competitions – his second best tally in 10 years in Real white.
Bale, meanwhile, managed just 14 goals in 42 appearances, his second worst tally during six seasons in the Spanish capital.
Zinedine Zidane even refused to bring him off the bench in the final La Liga game of the campaign when Los Blancos were losing 2-0 at home to Real Betis.
Serbia striker Luka Jovic has already arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt for £52.4million, while the club are also close to the record £130m signing of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
Bale’s woes have masked Modric’s own fall from grace. This is a player who orchestrated Vatreni’s (the Blazers) vibrant march to the World Cup final and saw him finally break the 10-year Ronaldo-Lionel Messi duopoly on the Ballon d’Or in December.
And yet, he has also spent much of the season forlornly looking for the frightening form that delivered it.
Both players make their countries tick. Both will be hoping their game will be running like clockwork once again on Saturday.
DAN’S BECOMING THE MAN
Daniel James has already dazzled, briefly, in the spotlight following a fine season at club level and shining on his first international start in March.
On that occasion, just his second cap, the exciting young winger scored the only goal as Wales began their Euro 2020 campaign in style with a 1-0 victory over Slovakia.
Now, on the brink of finalising a mouthwatering £18 million move to Manchester United the day before a pivotal second qualifier against World Cup finalists Croatia, James will be jettisoned even further towards centre stage.
Some United fans will feel anger at the club’s first acquisition of the summer being seemingly so safe – they desperately crave big names.
Yet that only serves as blind ignorance to both the stellar season James has had, as well as the talent available in England’s second tier.
James’ Wales colleague David Brooks has enjoyed a breakout season with Bournemouth following his £11.5m step up from Sheffield United 12 months ago, while Cherries’ team-mate Callum Wilson has enjoyed a career year, breaking double figures for Premier League goals for the first time as well as earning a first England cap – he was playing for League 1 Coventry five years ago.
As for James, he grabbed headlines with an eye-catching FA Cup goal against Brentford in February when his breakneck speed saw him win possession on the edge of his own box before scurrying forward and putting Swansea 3-1 ahead nine seconds later.
It was one of five goals scored across 38 games in all competitions, while he had the most Championship assists (7) for the Swans. He was also the fourth most fouled player (90) in the league during 2018/19.
He is destined for big things.
BLAZERS WEAR IT WELL
Croatia may be a baby in terms of the age of the nation, but when it comes to home form they are behemoths. They possess a record that stands among the tallest of any side in international football, especially their more illustrious and established European neighbours.
They have never lost a European Championship qualifier at home since their first match in the competition going back to 1994 – they only competed as a standalone nation for the first time in 1992 following independence.
They are formidable on home soil and have gone 23 home games unbeaten in all competitions – dating back to a 2-1 defeat by Belgium in Zagreb way back in October 2013. Since then they’ve drawn with Italy and England and beaten Spain in a run that has seen them notch a remarkable 45 goals and concede only 11.
When their ‘golden generation’ wowed the world with a quarter-final appearance on their major tournament debut at Euro 96 and then followed it up with third place at the 1998 World Cup, they were a fairytale success.
However, they have since established themselves as one of the continent’s heavyweights. They have not dropped outside FIFA’s top 20 teams since 2004 and their World Cup final run was built on a stunning overall work ethic married to the stellar talent of a handful of excellent individuals.
Wales themselves have enjoyed a splendid rise in recent years, first under Gary Speed, then Chris Coleman, and they are now building some momentum under Ryan Giggs. They were as low as 82nd in the world mid-2012 but have also taken up residency in FIFA’s top 20, where they have been since 2015.
Euro 2016’s trip to the semi-finals provided them with their own fairytale. But now they have to back that stardust-sprinkled story with substance, and that’s going to be tough in Osijek.
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