Croatia beat Turkey 1-0 in their opening Group D game thanks to Luka Modric’s first-half strike. The Real Madrid playmaker proved once more to be one of the craftiest players in Europe. Madrid makes this team tick and will be pivotal when Croatia meet Czech Republic on Friday.
The Czechs didn’t do themselves justice against Spain in their opening game as they sat back and shocked up the pressure until a very late Gerard Pique goal earned the Spanish victory. More is expected of this side in Saint-Etienne.
This is a must-win game for the Czechs and experts Michal Petrák and Juraj Vrdoljak are on hand to preview the clash.
Michal Petrák: Czech manager Pavel Vrba was criticised by some of the pundits back home for betraying his offensive style against Spain and he himself hinted at fielding a bit more of an attacking line-up against Croatia.
The Czechs certainly need to score, having lost their first game, if they want to keep their chances of qualifying alive. Bořek Dočkal, their top scorer of the qualifying campaign with four goals, should return to the line-up after struggling with fitness problems ever since the end of the league season.
The team are aware of the fact that in Croatia, they face an opponent who likes to control the game almost in a way that Spain does and will concentrate on stopping Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić first before focusing on attacking themselves. Apart from Dočkal, who struggled for a while, all players are fully fit.
Juraj Vrdoljak: Croatia’s captain Darijo Srna returned to the camp after he attended his father's funeral in his hometown, Metković, and is expected to be in contention for his usual right-back role.
Vedran Ćorluka, who suffered an uncomfortable gash on his head during the opener versus Turkey, as well as Ivan Perišić who felt a strained muscle and then asked to be substituted late in the game, are both reported fully fit for the clash against the Czech Republic, described by head coach Ante Čačić as being a “tougher opponent” than Turkey.
Regardless of the Croatia’s good display in their first game, some changes to the starting lineup are considered, with Šime Vrsaljko closing in on the left-back position ahead of Ivan Strinić.
Holder Milan Badelj will probably be left out as well, in favour of young Dinamo Zagreb's winger, Marko Pjaca. That will effectively see Marcelo Brozović switching deeper to cover the centre of the pitch, alongside Luka Modrić.
Michal Petrák: How do you rate the form of a team that has not even played much football in their opening game of the tournament? Against Spain, the Czechs defended extremely deep and rigorously, all set up for a 0-0 draw. That would have earned them an invaluable point from the game Gerard Pique was against that idea.
Czech Republic’s central defensive partnership of Tomáš Sivok and Roman Hubník did a good job as well as goalkeeper Petr Čech. They will need a more confident display against Croatia and from their talk, they are ready to take the game to their opponents more than they did in their first outing. They would take a point if asked before the match, probably.
Juraj Vrdoljak: Croatia and Czech Republic have never met in a competitive match, playing only two friendlies which Croatia one and drew one, the most recent a 4-2 victory in a friendly game back in 2011.
Although Croatia, together with Spain, are generally considered to be a clear favourites to top Group D, many had doubted the way Ante Čačić is running things. However, Croatia were surprisingly coherent during the match against Turkey, playing perhaps their best competitive game in a while.
Driven by a metronomic presence of Modrić and battering the Turks via both flanks, Croatia looked extremely motivated to prove a point and they truly delivered. However, there are aspects of the game that still have to be tweaked, especially regarding Ivan Rakitić. He was reminiscent of his Sevilla role by playing more offensively but there's a sense of him not being on the top of his game. Croatia did overrun the midfield on Sunday but with that kind of midfield class they'll simply have to come up with a clear backup plan for their attacking pattern if they want to avoid getting their game read out.
Michal Petrák: Vladimír Darida did not have the best of games against Spain — all running without a ball and chasing Andres Iniesta and co. If the Czechs want to be a bit more dominating against Croatia then they need Darida to be at his best. He will need to disturb Modrić and Rakitić as well as being dangerous himself. On average, he has run more than 12 km a game in the Bundesliga this season and will have to add to that amount against the Czechs’ next opponents. Jaroslav Plašil and Tomáš Rosický will provide their experience and vision but will need more than a little bit of Darida’s energy.
Juraj Vrdoljak: If the match against Turkey gave us anything, it was the insight on just how much a motivated Modrić means to this Croatia side. He was not only the team's focal point, organising the play and distributing the ball around, but he took full responsibility and imposed himself as a truly dominating presence on the pitch as well: a role we haven't seen Modrić undertake in a while. He is definitely expected to show more of the same against Czech Republic.
Michal Petrák: Vrba’s men defended for their lives against Spain and yet they created two or three good chances. Against Croatian defenders, who are not the fastest, they will look to convert what they create. On the other hand, clean sheets is just not the Czechs’ thing. Both teams to score at 2.08.
Juraj Vrdoljak: I can see this game being a suitable one for Mario Mandžukić’s style of play. He will almost certainly wear out the Czech centre-backs with his tireless running, which could result in him finding a goalscoring opportunity. He’s priced at 2.60 to net and seems like a good option.
Michal Petrák: Of the six goals the Czechs conceded in 2016, five were scored in the first half. Actually, Mario Mandžukić to score in the 1st half at 6.00 is not such a long shot...
Juraj Vrdoljak: Czech Republic looked very good versus Spain, especially defensively. But if they want to get something out of this match they'll simply have to revert to their more fluent, wing-based transitional play. I predict a fast-paced match, which could perhaps result in an own goal: an option going at 12.00
Michal Petrák: Czech Republic 1-1 Croatia at 7.00
Juraj Vrdoljak: 2-1 to Croatia at 15.00