Funny situation, Croatia. The expectations of how they ought to do at this tournament vary wildly depending on whom you ask.
Some see no reason why a fairytale run to the last World Cup final should not be repeated, while others fear an early exit.
The reality is probably somewhere in between and manager Zlatko Dalic has been preaching realism. ‘The bar is set too high, our ambitions are not realistic,’ he said recently.
‘We are still among the 10 strongest in Europe, but there are many candidates for the throne who are ahead of us.’
Croatia will be England’s first opponents at Euro 2020 this summer on Sunday at Wembley
Manager Zlatko Dalic has been keen to limit expectations for the country this summer
It provided a dose of pragmatism, the sort that will be evident at Wembley on Sunday, when the midfield is likely to be packed and England countered. The indication of how brave they are will come in the selection of either Mateo Kovacic or youngster Nikola Vlasic. Kovacic is likely to be given the nod, making Croatia more compact and streetwise.
Practical is what Dalic has been over his time in charge. The man who carries rosary beads in his pocket and cannot be contacted by anybody — even family — on a matchday surprised everybody in Russia and hopes that does not serve to his detriment now.
Certainly it did when suffering relegation in the Nations League, with severe misgivings from the public a consequence of heightened expectations.
Mateo Kovacic is expected to star in midfield alongside Luka Modric for Croatia this summer
‘Everyone thinks they’re an expert here but there are very few of them,’ Kovacic said on Friday. ‘It might be a bit rough in Croatia but that’s normal. The most important thing is we start well. Going through the group would be success. Afterwards, we’ll see. Anything can happen, as we saw in Russia.’
That evaluation felt at odds with new goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, who sources claim is the best they have produced since independence. ‘I think our midfield is better than England’s,’ Livakovic said boldly. Not messing around.
It is definitely their premier area. At 35, Luka Modric still runs games. Marcelo Brozovic remains a destructive sitter. They are not in a period of complete transition — dynamic wingers Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic are still a danger to any opposition — but the squad is in the process of a reshaping.
Real Madrid star Modric (left) is still running the midfield despite being 35 years of age
Ivan Rakitic, who dovetailed so beautifully with Modric, is no more and neither is Mario Mandzukic.
Dalic leans towards trusting his senior players yet new blood, particularly Josip Brekalo and Dinamo Zagreb’s two-cap attacking midfielder Luka Ivanusec, can influence games from the bench. Whether they are afforded that chance depends on the man in charge, who divides opinion.
Croatia’s build-up to Sunday has been inauspicious; a 1-1 draw with Armenia followed up with a one-goal defeat by Belgium, after which Mandzukic’s replacement, Bruno Petkovic, was heavily criticised. Much will depend on how Petkovic fares.
Stalwarts Mario Mandzukic (middle) and Ivan Rakitic (right) retired after the 2018 World Cup
‘I don’t want to say… actually, no, I do feel a responsibility,’ the 26-year-old said. ‘But it’s not a responsibility that should be turned into pressure or nerves. I’m ready regardless of comments from some experts.’
Petkovic’s inclination is to drop deep and link play, yet Dalic wants him to lead the line. Dalic, a manager who trades in emotion, wants willing runners to join in and plans to keep things simple against England. Perhaps then, when meeting Scotland and Czech Republic, Vlasic could operate as a No 10.
But they know that relying on defensive acumen is not quite the sure bet it has been in previous years.
Bruno Petkovic is Mandzukic’s replacement up front but has been criticised at times
Set pieces are a real problem — Romelu Lukaku’s winner the other night a product of disorganisation from a corner — and there is intrigue as to how Marseille’s Duje Caleta-Car takes to the opener alongside veteran Domagoj Vida.
There is a clamour to pick promising teenager Josko Gvardiol at either left back or centre half, with the RB Leipzig defender attracting interest from across Europe.
Yet Dalic looks set to persevere with more experienced heads in the hope that muscle memory kicks in and they upset a few along the way. Croatia are always at their strongest when railing against a common foe. It just so happens that appears to be those watching back home this time.