You can have Luka Modric, the greatest midfielder of his generation. You can have Mateo Kovacic, one of the Europe’s finest all-rounders, alongside him. You can have Marcelo Brozovic pulling the strings. You can have one of the greatest midfields in modern European history — even after the international retirement of Ivan Rakitic.
But if you don’t have anything up front you are going to struggle to score a goal or get very far in a World Cup.
Croatia’s return to this tournament, four and a bit years on from their thrilling run to the 2018 final, was not one to send fans seeking out the highlights. Their 0-0 draw with Morocco revealed two well-organised, competitive teams trying to gain a foothold in Group F. There was plenty of effort, energy and intelligence on show, and some very good players on both sides. But in terms of goalmouth action, well, you will have to look elsewhere.
The closest we came here at the Al Bayt stadium was a chance at the end of the first half, when Croatia left-back Borna Sosa ran down the line and fired in a low cross. Nikola Vlasic darted towards goal but his shot was smothered by Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. And in terms of real chances, that was it.
Beyond that? Modric shot over from the edge of the box in first-half added time, Dejan Lovren nearly turned a second-half corner in, but it was cleared by Sofyan Amrabat. If highlights editors are getting really desperate, there was the moment when Abderrazak Hamdallah stuck out a leg to clear a Modric free-kick and it whistled just over the Moroccan crossbar. But we are scraping the barrel here.
Some credit has to go to Morocco of course. They were very well drilled in a 4-1-4-1 system designed to squeeze the space in the middle of the pitch. They did not just sit on the edge of their own box; they were aggressive at the right moments, shut down the flanks, and forced Modric to take the ball deeper and deeper. Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd are two very accomplished centre-backs who know how to handle themselves. Neither Belgium nor Canada will enjoy playing against Morocco either.
And the general goallessness of this World Cup may be a factor here too. This was the third 0-0 of the World Cup so far. Maybe the heat, lack of training time, and early fear of losing means we will not see too many goals for a while.
But all that context acknowledged, it still feels like Croatia will struggle to score goals. They dominated possession here today but strained to create any real chances. Andrej Kramaric made almost no impression on the game at all; not big enough to play as a target man, not quick enough to run in behind. Vlasic, cutting in from the right, was not much better and was hooked at half-time for Mario Pasalic, another creative midfielder who made no real impact.
There was very little movement from the Croatian forwards to stretch Morocco, to run beyond them, or to get their defence turning. Ivan Perisic, stationed wide on the left, had a few good battles with Achraf Hakimi but generally came off second best. When Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic replaced Kramaric with Hajduk Split’s Marko Livaja he had a bit more presence, but not enough to make a difference.
At the end the Croatia fans here looked as if their team had lost. They must have been nostalgic for the last campaign when they had Mario Mandzukic up front. He was a relentlessly awkward opponent, physical, canny and a nightmare to play against. Without him they would not have got to the final in Russia. But he has hung up his boots now and is one of Dalic’s assistants. So is Ivica Olic, more of a scurrier, but another great player in his own way. Put a younger Olic or Mandzukic in front of this midfield and Croatia would be a very different prospect.
But this is what makes international football such a compelling challenge. Modric has spent the last 10 years of his club career playing for Real Madrid. He has been making chances for Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard and Vinicius Junior. Real Madrid’s strategy during that time has been Florentino Perez spending money on forwards who are fed by Modric and Toni Kroos in midfield. And it has worked fairly well: they have won five of the last nine Champions Leagues.
Modric’s Croatian midfield team-mates have had a broadly similar experience: Kovacic has played with some great players at Inter, Real and Chelsea, as has Brozovic over the last seven years at Inter. If these clubs need a striker they just buy one.
Dalic does not have the same luxury. Like all international managers, he has to make do with the players he can find. Maybe he can unearth a gem somewhere in Croatian football, and given the talent they produce, that is not impossible. Maybe in the limited timespan afforded to international coaches he and his team can find an extra edge in one of his players to make a difference. But realistically that is unlikely. (Critics of Dalic may point to the exclusion of the dynamic Ante Rebic, someone who could have provided pace and penetration the others lack.)
But Dalic and Croatia simply have to find a way. There is no obvious solution, but if they have any hopes of repeating their 2018 run, then somehow between Vlasic, Kramaric, Livaja and Mislav Orisc, they have to conjure up some combination to score goals. Starting against Canada on Sunday.
(Top photo: Michael Regan/FIFA via Getty Images)