After being one of the most impressive teams at the World Cup, unheralded Croatia look to take another step in repeating their 1998 run to the semifinals Sunday as they face Denmark in Nizhny Novogorod in the round of 16.
One of three teams to sweep their three matches in group play with Uruguay and Belgium, the Vatreni are in the knockout round for the first time since their maiden appearance in 1998, when they reached the semifinals behind Davor Suker. They had failed to get out of group play in three previous appearances, winning just two of those nine matches.
Croatia announced its intent with perhaps the most impressive win over a World Cup power, walloping two-time champion Argentina 3-0 as it completely neutralized Lionel Messi in its middle Group D contest and handed La Albiceleste their worst World Cup defeat in 60 years.
Zlatko Dalic’s side completed its sweep with a 2-1 victory over Iceland, getting a clinical strike from Ivan Perisic at the death for the match-winner. Milan Badelj had the other goal for the Vatreni, who still controlled large stretches of play despite introducing nine new starters for the match having already qualified.
Denmark is in the knockout round for the first time since 2002, finishing runner-up to France in Group C. Rather then play for the top spot, Danish Dynamite opted for a low-risk approach in the finale versus the 1998 champion, adding a fifth to the back line and playing out a dour 0-0 draw that stood as the only scoreless contest in group play in Russia.
Age Hareide’s team played well defensively, conceding just once in the three matches — a penalty kick in its draw versus Australia. The Danes, though, scored just twice as they continued to rely on the all-around skills of Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham Hotspur attacking midfielder assisted on Yussuf Poulsen’s winner versus Peru and scored in the draw against the Socceroos.
While Eriksen was doing yeoman’s work in attack, keeper Kasper Schmeichel was doing that and more in the back. The Leicester City No. 1 finished with 14 saves in the three matches, trailing only Memo Ochoa’s 17 for Mexico among all keepers. Denmark did not really live up to the Danish Dynamite moniker as they put only nine of their 25 shots on target.
Denmark has reached the World Cup quarterfinals just once in club history, losing to Brazil in 1998. The Danes’ last appearance in the knockout round was a 3-0 setback to England in 2002.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 16 — Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (Etebo 32′ (og), Modric 71′ (PK))
June 21 — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Croatia 2, Iceland 1 (Badelj 50′, G. Sigurdsson 76′ (PK), Perisic 90′)
June 16 — Denmark 1, Peru 0 (Poulsen 59′)
June 21 — Denmark 1, Australia 1 (Eriksen 7′, Jedinak 38′ (PK))
June 26 — Denmark 0, France 0
Both teams are expected to set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but what becomes interesting is how Eriksen tries to find space getting beyond Modric and Ivan Rakitic and attacking Croatia’s back four since the Vatreni did not concede an open goal in the three matches.
None of Denmark’s strikers distinguished themselves in group play, so the hedge is Hareide restores Nicolai Jorgensen to lead the line. Andreas Cornelius is the other option up front, but since Jorgensen had the assist on Eriksen’s goal, he appears the better choice.
In contrast, an example of how clinical Croatia has been is that while it has the same amount of shots on goal as Denmark, it has scored five more goals. Mario Mandzukic has had his chances, entering this contest second on the Vatreni with six shots, but the fact the shots on goal have been spread — no one has more than two on target — shows the effectiveness Croatia has enjoyed.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Croatia has everyone available for this match but has an astounding eight players on a yellow card. Of those eight, Rakitic, Mandzukic, Sime Vrsaljko and Ante Rebic are expected to be in the starting XI.
Poulsen returns to Denmark’s starting lineup after he served a one-match ban for his yellow cards in the first two contests — both of which resulted in spot kicks for opponents. Midfielder Willie Kvist remains sidelined with a rib injury and punctured lung suffered in the opener versus Peru.
Midfielders Thomas Delaney and Pione Sisto are on yellow cards hoping to emerge without a second to have them wiped away.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Croatia — Luka Modric (MF)
Smoother than a James Bond villain, Modric effortlessly pulls the strings in Croatia’s midfield, and as he showed in rope-a-doping Nicolas Otamendi for his world-class strike versus Argentina, he can pop in the occasional goal. It says something to his talent that Dalic can overturn virtually his entire lineup around Modric, and the Vatreni still maintained nearly 60 percent possession against Iceland.
Denmark – Christian Eriksen (MF)
Eriksen showed his 11 goals in qualifying were no fluke as he has factored on both goals for Denmark in Russia. The Spurs No. 10 is going to need a lot of support from his fellow attackers, especially Sisto and Poulsen on the flanks to force Croatia’s wide midfielders to retreat out of the final third and be available for passes to help force Modric into defending.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
This will be the first meeting between the teams in the World Cup, but they were placed in the same UEFA qualifying group to reach France in 1998. Denmark topped the group by two points over Croatia, playing the Vatreni to a 1-1 draw on the road and winning 3-1 in Copenhagen as the Laudrup brothers accounted for three of the four goals.
Kasper Schmeichel’s father Peter was between the sticks for Denmark in those matches, with both Croatian goals scored by Suker. Overall, each side has two wins and split the points in a fifth contest.
Per Ladbrokes, Croatia is a strong favorite at 5/6 odds, with Denmark checking in at 15/4. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalties are 21/10. Despite failing to find the back of the net in group play, Mandzukic is still the favorite to score the first goal of the match at 9/2 odds, with Croatia reserve Andrej Kramaric a second choice at 5-1 and Perisic and Rebic joint-third at 7/1.
Jorgensen is Denmark’s top option, also at 7/1, while Eriksen is a slightly longer pick at 9/1.
While many expected Croatia to come out of what turned out to be a fairly well-balanced Group D, no one expected Argentina to be so dysfunctional they would be four minutes from going home early from Russia. The Vatreni have been cool, calm and collected in all three matches thus far, deserving winners in each contest, and turning ruthless when necessary while scoring four of their seven goals in the 70th minute or later.
Denmark will have a lot of work to do in this match, starting with keeping Modric off the ball. Its central defense pairing of Andreas Christensen and Simon Kjaer will have to keep Mandzukic under wraps, and the wide backs must get forward whenever possible.
Hareide’s other option would to use a five-man back like he did against France, but that also concedes possession to Modric outside Denmark’s final third. That, however, is a strategy simply courting disaster considering his quality.
Jorgensen likely will have to drop deep and help out in possession, with Denmark’s best option in the run of play is getting it ahead to him at midfield and giving Eriksen a chance to get a sprint going before getting a return pass to hit on the counter.
The only worry about the Vatreni is that they have yet to deal with adversity at this World Cup. They have yet to trail in Russia and yet to concede in open play. How they would respond to a shock goal from Denmark would be an interesting scenario that could prove difficult.
Denmark has also not conceded in the run of play, but it did suffer at points against both Peru and Australia. When Danish Dynamite get stretched is when they get themselves in trouble, and Modric has the vision to unleash a killer pass to do just that.
This will be a cagey game. If Croatia does not score in the first hour, there is a real chance this match will go to extra time and then the dreaded penalties. But the Vatreni have too much attacking quality to break down a determined Danish defense and will move on with a 1-0 victory that will be more comfortable on the field than the scoreline will show.
The winner of this match will face the winner of the Spain-Russia match in the quarterfinals July 7 in Sochi.