Croatia’s World Cup appearances have all resulted in group-stage exits or expectation-busting runs to the semi-finals or beyond, and while just one game into Qatar 2022 Sunday’s match against Canada already has a make-or-break feel about it.
A 0-0 draw against Morocco on Wednesday, in which Zlatko Dalic’s side had only two attempts on target, has already left them two points adrift of group leaders Belgium, who eked out a 1-0 victory over the Canadians in their opener.
A draw or defeat against Canada will therefore leave Croatia needing to get something from their final group game against the second-ranked Belgians.
Dalic will hope that their performance against Morocco, in which they seemed to lack sharpness going forward, was down to early-tournament teething problems rather than something more fundamental.
Yet after their superb run in Russia, it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with the side that were eventually beaten 4-2 by France in the final in Moscow.
Dalic was keen not to look back when he spoke to reporters following the draw at Al Bayt Stadium, with the need to move forward a repeated refrain.
“Four and a half years have passed and Croatia has almost a whole new national team … we cannot draw comparisons between the two generations of players,” he said. “This is another World Cup we have prepared. We know we are good, we know we can do it. We are prepared to fight on.”
There were some positives to take from the game against Morocco, principally in defence, where they were largely untroubled throughout.
Twenty-year-old centre back Josko Gvardiol looked totally unruffled in his World Cup debut and his partnership with veteran Dejan Lovren looked good.
Yet Dalic has work to do going forward if they are to challenge again, and history says the tournament will only go one of two ways.
Croatia are making their sixth World Cup appearance, having bombed out in the group stage on three occasions and twice embarking on stunning runs, reaching the semis in 1998 and the final last time around.
If they were unsure what sort of side they were going to face in Canada they will have a much clearer idea after John Herdman’s team gave Belgium a run for their money.
Alphonso Davies’s missed penalty let Belgium off the hook before Michy Batshuayi’s goal against the run of play sealed the points.
Japan have last 16 in sight
Few would have given Japan much chance of getting out of a group that included Germany and Spain when the World Cup draw was made but a win over Costa Rica on Sunday would leave Hajime Moriyasu’s side on the brink of the last 16.
The Japanese came from behind to beat four-times champions Germany on Wednesday and will face a Costa Rica side reeling from their 7-0 thrashing by Spain in their Group E opener.
For Costa Rica coach Luis Fernando Suarez, rebuilding his side’s shattered confidence is the priority.
“I’m worried that mentally the team won’t get out of this slump, this bad result,” he said after the defeat. “Logically, that’s the first thing I have to try to solve. We have to take responsibility for what happened but once we all talk about it, we need to forget about it.”
To help him lift the side, the coach will turn to the few veterans from their 2014 campaign when they reached the quarter-finals after topping a group that also featured England, Italy and Uruguay.
Things look much more promising for Japan, who produced the second major shock of the 2022 World Cup so far with their 2-1 comeback win over Germany.
The Japanese were helped by six Bundesliga players and one more playing in Germany’s second tier, as strikes from Freiburg’s Ritsu Doan and VfL Bochum’s Takuma Asano gave the Asian side their first ever win over Germany.
Costa Rica, who suffered their heaviest ever defeat at the World Cup finals, are unlikely to provide as stiff a test as the Germans. Spain lie in wait for Japan in their final group game but Moriyasu knows Sunday’s result may mean there is little riding on it.
Originally published at tribune.com.pk