World Cup 2014 Expert Interview: Can Croatia succeed with an inexperienced head coach?

As part of our World Cup coverage, we have interviewed journalists, correspondents, experts, writers from each of the 32 countries to give you, the readers, a better understanding of the 32 nations participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Here are the list of interviewees.

Croatia World Cup (1)

For this interview, focusing on Croatia, we have spoken to Aleksandar Holiga; writer for FourFourTwo, the Guardian, the Blizzard, 11 Freunde, WSC, In Bed With Maradona and Tportal. Follow him on twitter @AlexHoliga

The focus is going to be on Brazil, and Croatia are going to be living in the shadows prior to the big kick off. Does this suit them, and indeed, offer them an advantage?

You’re asking me to speculate on their psychological preparation. I think any situation can be turned to one’s advantage with the right preparation and at this moment I can’t tell how they’re going to prepare for it. But if you ask me, then I think there are obvious advantages for Croatia. The hosts will be under immense pressure and Croatia won’t; Brazil will be the ones expected to attack and play good football, while Croatian fans will just want their team to give their all.

Nikica Jelavic has struck a little form with Hull in the second half of the season, will the coach be keen to give him a go alongside Mandzukic, or will it be an either or situation?

No, Jelavic is currently our 4th choice striker – behind Mandzukic, Olic (who can also play on the wing) and Eduardo. His style doesn’t fit very well into the way Croatia play and those 3 guys are all in better form than he is. I suppose manager Kovac could decide to use a striker of his type against Brazil (please note that Mandzukic won’t be playing in the WC opener vs. Brazil due to red card suspension), but right now Jelavic starting is very far from likely. And no – the chance of Jelavic playing alongside Mandzukic is almost zero. Kovac is adamant to play with one striker in 4-2-3-1-cum-4-1-4-1 formation.

On paper, Croatia look good enough to make the second round, but do you think an opening day defeat to Brazil, a plausible result with all due respect, will damage confidence ahead of the other matches?

Of course defeats can damage confidence, but not necessarily in this case. If they play well and still lose, that shouldn’t affect them greatly. No-one expects them to win, anyway. At the 2006 WC, Croatia played their first match vs. Brazil and lost 1-0, but they weren’t too bad. I think that actually gave them confidence for the remaining matches, although that team was just much, much worse than the current one and they failed to get past the group stage.

Ivan Rakitic & Luka Modric are arguably two of the strongest midfielders in Spain’s star studded La Liga. How exactly do you see them playing together in midfield? Will they prove to be Croatia’s key players?

There are two options: 1) Both Modric and Rakitic deeper in midfield, with Kovacic in front of them, no “true” holder; 2) Rakitic behind the striker, with Modric and someone else (probably Vukojevic) behind him, possibly with Kovacic on one of the wings.
Great thing about Modric and Rakitic is that their styles are different from one another and really complementary. Of course they are expected to be Croatia’s  key players.

Niko Kovac will be the second youngest head coach at the 2014 World Cup. Certainly it is a risk that the federation has taken. How can the inexperience work in Croatia’s favour, or is this decision destined for failure?

There was no choice. His predecessor Igor Stimac had to go (because everyone, including the players, lost any faith in him) and the federation had no time to look for alternatives. Kovac was being groomed to take over one day, he was doing a great job with the U-21s, and he was probably the only realistic option ahead of the WC playoffs.

The decision to accept the job is very risky for Kovac, who is at the very start of his coaching career, but not for the federation: any other option, including leaving Stimac at the helm, would have been more risky than appointing Kovac.

He was not just the only realistic option – he was by far the best choice at that point in time. Kovac commands massive respect among the players (he captained a team featuring with most of them only 6 years ago and was a true leader on the pitch), but also among the fans who haven’t forgotten how important he was and how hard he always fought. Yes, he’s inexperienced, but he knows these players inside out; there was a sea change of both atmosphere around the team and players’ confidence as soon as he took over and he immediately began showing that he has the tactical nous his predecessor was lacking.

Of course his inexperience as a coach could prove a big disadvantage in certain situations, but there’s a good chance that even that could work in Croatia’s favour. This will be a different team altogether than the one that struggled in the qualifiers – they will line up differently and play differently. Opponents will have a hard time scouting Croatia well for these reasons.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group A

We at Outside of the Boot track the progress of youngsters under our Talent Radar feature. Mateo Kovacic is the most significant young name who is likely to feature in Brazil. What role do you think he has in the side?

I think he will play an important role – perhaps even very important. I expect him to be a starter – and if Kovac proceeds with a plan to field him together with Modric and Rakitic in a 3-playmaker midfield, that will be very, very exciting (and also risky…). If they click, they could do wonders. Playing him on the wing could also be very interesting – Croatia really lack quality wide players and I believe he has all the right attributes and skills to shine in that position for the side.

It could be some time before we see Croatia improve or even equal their debut World Cup finish in 1998. But with group stage exits the last two times they featured, 2002 & 2006, is merely getting past the first round a huge success for the team?

For Croatia – a country whose population is 4.3 million and whose domestic league is very poor – qualification for the World Cup is a big success in itself. Especially with what we’ve been through in the qualifiers. But when the quality of our players is taken into account, and especially their form this season, then getting past the group stage is a realistic aim – we should be very happy with that. However, on their day this team can beat just about anyone.

Read all our World Cup Interviews here, and all other WC2014 related content here.