The restart of domestic leagues and international football in September 2020, when the world felt the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdowns, proved to be a more challenging time for some national teams than others.
Croatia closed the calendar year in 2019 unbeaten in six matches and having topped their UEFA European Championship qualifying group for the first time in 12 years, managing to shake off the humiliation of the previous year’s 6-0 loss to Spain in their group of the UEFA Nations League. -stage opener
However, the 2018 FIFA World Cup finalists did not foresee the eight-month gap between their last game that year and the start of the 2020-21 Nations League campaign.
What followed was nothing short of abysmal, as they suffered a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Portugal, as well as a repeat of the 4-2 scoreline in a World Cup final rematch with France, being two of five. losses suffered in that group stage.
Only saved from relegation to the Nations League second division on goal difference, the Croats began the delayed Euro 2020 last June with a hot and cold performance in the group stage before falling again to Spain, this time. in an eight. -goal thriller in the round of 16 that ended 5-3 after extra time.
However, the match exposed a persistent problem for the team, with it being the fifth time since the September 2020 restart that the Croats had conceded more than three goals in a match.
With mounting pressure on head coach Zlatko Dalić, the Croatia native was forced to take a hard look at his team selection and specifically his backline to get to the bottom of his team’s shortcomings just three years after leaving. reach the World Cup final.
The long-time reliability of centre-back and vice-captain Domagoj Vida was beginning to wane as he was primarily responsible for two of the three goals conceded in a friendly against Turkey in November 2020.
While former Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren only started once at the European Championship in his last group match against Scotland, the pairing of the two 32-year-olds at the heart of the defense would have been considered a questionable choice by Many.
Although the average age of the starting line-up against Spain is not particularly high at 27, raised by Vida and a 35-year-old Luka Modric, it was clear from the loss that the team needed a revamp in some capacity: They he needed some youth to complement the experience and poise of Modric, Chelsea star Mateo Kovačić and Celtic right-back Josip Juranović, among others.
Resuming a World Cup qualifying campaign that began with a 1-0 loss to Slovenia in March 2021, Dalić began fielding more retired players and national team debutants in September, while also prioritizing time. game for veterans Ivan Perišić, Andrej Kramarić and Marcelo Brozović. in addition to keeping central defenders Vida and Lovren in the starting eleven sporadically during the campaign.
The rest was history as Croatia comfortably topped their qualifying group and have lost just once since their Euro 2020 campaign, thanks in part to a host of new faces across the squad, including two standouts from 24 years.
Admirably dubbed the new Luka Modric, Rennes playmaker Lovro Majer made his senior international debut in 2017 due to his excellent club form with Lokomotiva in the Croatian top division. However, it wasn’t until November last year and after four seasons with Dinamo Zagreb that he got another chance in the senior team, but he made it worth it as he bagged a brace on his third senior appearance during a win. 7-0 over Malta. .
Equipped with a face shield that channels the masked crusader, ‘Zorro’ Majer put on a winning display in the Nations League last Thursday, coming off the bench to score the winner against Denmark with 10 minutes remaining in what he described. as “one of the best I’ve scored in my career”.
The technically gifted Majer’s stellar performances on the national team and in Ligue 1 have reportedly sparked transfer interest from Premier League club Arsenal, who may be looking to bolster their midfield stocks in La Liga. January transfer window.
VfB Stuttgart’s Borna Sosa has also excelled since making his starting debut against Russia during a World Cup qualifier in September last year, his keen defensive instincts and creative flair earning him a spot at left-back. preferred most recently at Euro 2020. starter Joško Gvardiol. Sosa even scored his first international goal in the same 2-1 win over Denmark in the Nations League on 22 September.
Dalić has slowly introduced more young debutants who have had outstanding performances at club level in the national team over the last 12 months, including defenders Josip Stanišić (Bayern Munich) and Josip Šutalo (Dinamo Zagreb), Eintracht Frankfurt with midfielder Kristijan Jakić and 20-year-old Luka Sučić, who scored eight goals in 28 league games last season for Red Bull Salzburg.
Not only have these new additions added more depth to the Croatian team, which is already packed with reliable veteran players, but some have even challenged the regular starters for a place in the squad, adding a level of competitiveness for starting positions that could said to have lifted the Croats to their outstanding form of recent matches.