Weblog: The football punter

Classy Croatia can reach World Cup last eight

Round of 16
ITV, 7pm Sunday

Many pundits had declared Group D to be the toughest qualification section at this year's World Cup but Croatia passed the test with consummate ease and should be backed to continue their winning run by overcoming Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod.

There was nothing flashy about their 2-0 win against Nigeria in their tournament opener but they went through the gears to seal qualification with a 3-0 success over Argentina and Zlatko Dalic had the luxury of making wholesale changes for their 2-1 victory against Iceland.

Top spot secured with seven goals scored and only one conceded makes for excellent reading, while Croatia can also be delighted to have headed into the easier side of the knockout draw.

All areas of the pitch look in decent working order, from goalkeeper Danijel Subasic right through to striker Mario Mandzukic.

Defensively Croatia look better than they have in previous tournaments with Dejan Lovren performing well at centre-back alongside Domagoj Vida to such an extent that Dalic's side barely gave up an opportunity in their opening two clashes and that includes 90 minutes of playing against Lionel Messi.

Atletico Madrid right-back Sime Vrsaljko is an excellent option and even perceived weak link Ivan Strinic has done okay, so there is no reason for Croatia to be wary of tackling Denmark.

It's in midfield, however, where Croatia look to dominate opponents with Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic alongside Luka Modric of Real Madrid and the team is balanced by either Marcelo Brozovic or Milan Badelj controlling matters just in front of the defence.

Croatia have a cracking mix, one which could take them all the way to the final if they can maintain their current performance levels, with Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic offering thrust down the flanks in support of Mandzukic.

One word of caution must come from two years ago when Croatia again looked dripping in class after the Euro 2016 group stage but failed to go beyond the last 16 after an extra-time defeat to Portugal.

Perisic hit the post with four minutes remaining in that tie and Portugal went up the other end and scored on their way to winning the tournament.

It could quite easily have been Croatia, but they won't get many more opportunities with Modric, Mandzukic and Rakitic all at least 30 and that now-or-never pressure can be a difficult burden to bear.

Denmark have less weight on their shoulders because they have less talent outside of the exceptional Christian Eriksen, who will almost have to carry his nation single-handedly to the quarter-finals.

Age Hareide's men are unbeaten in 18 matches but they have struggled to perform at this World Cup, fortunately overcoming a Peru side that played all the football before being on the backfoot for the second half of their 1-1 draw with Australia.

Then came the bore draw with a makeshift French side that saw both teams secure a mutually beneficial point, but Les Bleus were not motivated. This Croatia side will be giving it their the absolute maximum and that would be enough.


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Match in Focus

19:45 Fr 19Oct SKY

Sheff Wed v Middlesbro

Home WinDrawAway Win
Key stats
  • Middlesbrough have won four of their last five meetings with Sheffield Wednesday
Expert verdict
No side has shipped fewer goals in the Championship than Middlesbrough this term and their defensive resolve can give them the edge against playoff hopefuls Sheffield Wednesday. Tony Pulis’s team have lost just once on the road this season and the Owls are yet to keep a clean sheet in the league.