Photo: It needed a play-off victory over Iceland to qualify, but Croatia's technical excellence makes it a favourite to progress from its group. (AFP: Dimitar Dilkoff)
Croatia Team Profile - World Cup 2014 team profile: Croatia - Based on the pedigree of its squad, Croatia has high hopes of reaching the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup, but will face a stern challenge in a group featuring hosts Brazil, Cameroon and Mexico.
The Croatians, who have not reached the last 16 since their impressive third-place finish in the 1998 tournament, face a daunting opener against favourites Brazil in Sao Paulo on June 12 and defeat would put pressure on them to win the remaining two group fixtures against dangerous opponents.
Croatia will sorely miss its top scorer Mario Mandzukic in the opening game against Brazil, with the towering Bayern Munich striker suspended after getting sent off in the final qualifier against Iceland.
Croatia: World Cup facts
- FIFA world ranking: 20
- World Cup appearances: 4
- Best finish: Third place (1998)
- Leading WC goalscorer: Davor Suker - 6
Much will depend on how quickly Croatia's coach Niko Kovac - who took over from Igor Stimac shortly before Croatia's 2-0 aggregate playoff win over Iceland - adapts to the challenges of managing a talented squad during a tournament.
Kovac's only prior coaching experience was a good start in the qualifying campaign for the Euro 2015 Under-21 finals, when he racked up four wins in as many games before he was promoted to take Stimac's place at the most critical stage of Croatia's qualifying campaign.
- Thursday 12th June v Brazil (Sao Paulo)
- Wednesday 18th June v Cameroon (Manaus)
- Monday 23rd June v Mexico (Recife)
The former defensive midfielder restored order in the dressing room after the Croatians almost fell apart under Stimac, who lost four of his last six games in charge and, more importantly, his authority in the dressing room.
Playmaker Luka Modric will have to fire on all cylinders for Croatia to navigate the group and Kovac also has few world class options in defence, despite missing banned stalwart Josip Simunic.
There is plenty of depth up front, however, in the proven scorers of Ivica Olic, Eduardo da Silva and Nikica Jelavic, supported by the tried and trusted attacking midfielder Ivan Rakitic - Mandzukic will also be vital once he has served his one-match ban.
The youth is personified by talented 20-year-old central midfielder Mateo Kovacic who burst into the spotlight in qualifying and by defender Dejan Lovren after he found his feet in the Premier League at Southampton.
In the final analysis, Croatia is capable of advancing into the business end of the tournament if it can produce its best football while managing huge expectations at home to rekindle some of the 1998 gloss.
That second qualifying spot is up for grabs, and Croatia has the strike force and attacking flair to get results against Cameroon and Mexico. Failure to navigate the group would be a disappointment.
- Best World Cup Result: Third Place (1998)
- Best European Championship Result: Quarter Finals (1996, 2008)
- Record Scorer: Davor Suker (45)
- Most Capped Player: Darijo Srna (110)
- Coach: Niko Kovac
- Captain: Darijo Srna
23-man Croatia 2014 World Cup Squad:
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Oliver Zelenika (Dinamo Zagreb).
Defenders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Gordon Schildenfeld, Danijel Pranjic (both Panathinaikos), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Genoa).
Midfielders: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Perisic (Wolfsburg), Mateo Kovacic (Inter Milan), Marcelo Brozovic (Dinamo Zagreb), Sammir (Getafe), Ivan Mocinic (Rijeka).
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Eduardo (Shakhtar Donetsk), Nikica Jelavic (Hull City), Ante Rebic (Fiorentina).
Star player: Luka Modric
Photo: Super technician ... Croatia's midfield fulcrum Luka Modric. (Joe Klamar: AFP)
Luka Modric has progressed steadily through the ranks of European football to earn a place in Real Madrid's starting team, and his form will be vital in Croatia's bid to reach the World Cup knockout stages.
Modric, now 28, came to the fore at Croatia's top club, Dinamo Zagreb, in 2003, where he won three league titles and two cups, scoring 33 goals in 128 games before his move to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008.
His vision, passing and close control made him a key player at the Premier League club who reached the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time during his four-year spell at White Hart Lane, which ended in a protracted move to nine-time European champions Real Madrid.
Yet while his club career flourished, Modric suffered one heartbreak after another in the Croatia shirt.
Following a group-stage exit after a dramatic 2-2 draw with underdogs Australia in the 2006 World Cup, the Croatians lost a heart-stopping Euro 2008 quarter-final against Turkey with Modric missing one of his country's three penalties in the shootout.
It had been arguably Modric's best tournament, as Croatia stormed through the group stage, beating eventual runner-up Germany 2-1, and took the lead against Turkey in the last minute of extra time only to see their opponents equalise with the last kick of the game.
The Croatians failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and Modric had a patchy Euro 2012 as they failed to progress from a tough group that included eventual winners Spain and runners-up Italy.
Modric has been in fine form this season and was again one of Croatia's key players in World Cup qualifying, and if he can maintain his influence, Croatia will be a threat in Brazil.
Coach: Niko Kovac
Photo: Thrown in at the deep end ... Croatia coach Niko Kovac. (AFP: Michael Buholzer)
Having missed Croatia's greatest international success as a player through injury, Niko Kovac will head to the World Cup hoping he can reach similar heights with the Balkan nation in a coaching capacity after guiding them to the finals.
The 42-year-old former defensive midfielder was thrown into the fray at the most delicate moment in qualifying, three weeks ahead of Croatia's 2-0 aggregate playoff win over Iceland after it had lost three of its last four group matches under Igor Stimac.
Kovac, who scored 14 goals in 83 internationals but was sidelined when Croatia finished third in the 1998 tournament, steadied the ship and passed the first real test of his coaching career with flying colours.
Known for his no-nonsense approach as a player, he was put in charge of Croatia's Under-21 side in January 2013 and made a perfect start in the qualifying competition for the European Under-21 2015 championship after winning his opening four games.
With the senior team all at sea after stuttering to a runners-up finish in European Group A and Stimac falling out with players, fans and the media, the Croatian FA saw Kovac as a natural replacement and he has repaid their faith handsomely.
Following a 0-0 draw in Iceland, he got everything right in the return leg as his team selection and formation resulted in a comfortable 2-0 win - although Croatia was reduced to 10 men when striker Mandzukic was sent off in the first half shortly after scoring the opener.
Re-adjusting his formation without battering-ram Mandzukic, who is suspended for the World Cup opener against hosts Brazil in Sao Paulo, will be a tough test of Kovac's know-how at the highest level.
Reunited with his brother in a bid to reach the knockout stages in Brazil and perhaps try to emulate Croatia's 1998 feat, Niko Kovac will need to muster all the steel of his playing days if he is to survive a tough preliminary group also including Mexico and Cameroon.
This article originally appeared in : World Cup 2014 team profile: Croatia | abc.net.au | Updated Sun 1 Jun 2014, 7:48am AEST