Croatia's class of 2013 have graft as well as craft

So much for the end of a domestic season representing a few friendly kickabouts in the sun. Gordon Strachan’s Scotland will have their hands full in Zagreb on Friday night. 

If most of you who have been watching Group A have had their eyes on the effervescent Belgium, it means that many have overlooked the highly-impressive Croatia. 

Going into the game in good form, coach Igor Stimac has a pair of aces up his sleeve who have enjoyed excellent – if not always widely celebrated – seasons. 

The attack will be led, of course, by Mario Mandzukic, a fine player whose goalscoring exploits against Republic of Ireland and Croatia in Euro 2012 catapulted him into the wider European consciousness and more importantly, into the arms of Bayern Munich. 

Many (your writer included) expected Super Mario II to be mere back-up to Herr Gomez, but an injury to the 2011/12 top scorer let in the new signing – and as we’ve discovered, once Mandzukic gets a grip of something, he rarely lets go.

Scotland may fear Croatia's technique but think they can match their workrate. However, where Mandzukic is concerned, they have a fight on their hands to do so. 

His 20 goals have been useful, but his all-round effort has probably been as important. When he replaced Gomez after little over an hour of Saturday’s DFB Pokal final against Stuttgart, the Germany international’s brace had just given Bayern a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead and we might have assumed that Mandzukic was just having a quick run-out to please the fans.

The man himself had different ideas. Within seconds of coming on, he was bearing down on Stuttgart’s Serdar Tasci at a rate of knots, and a few seconds later still he was forcing goalkeeper Sven Ulreich into a save with a towering header. 

It has been the story of Mandzukic’s season. His close attention to Dortmund’s midfield kingpin Ilkay Gundogan was as responsible for turning the tide in the Champions League final as his tap-in that gave Jupp Heynckes’ side the lead.

Mandzukic is not the only player in Croatia’s ranks to have enjoyed a productive season. When Liverpool were linked with a move for Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic in recent days, the only surprise was that it has taken this long for the midfielder to be suggested as a reinforcement for one of the world’s bigger clubs. 

The Andalucian side have fallen a long way since their UEFA Cup wins of 2006 and 2007, but the versatile Rakitic is a key part of the rebuild currently taking place at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

In fact, skint Sevilla would rather sell the talismanic Alvaro Negredo than the versatile Rakitic were push to come to shove. 

He played wide right during an impressive Euro 2012 but has played on the other side too for Sevilla, and spent a lengthy spell as a deep-lying midfielder for first club Schalke, which suited him well. 

Rakitic is the embodiment of this current Croatia; maybe not quite as technically astonishing as the sides that wowed the world in 1996’s Euros and World Cup 1998, but allying graft and craft to great effect. 

Stimac’s defence, still propped up by the veteran Josip Simunic with Dejan Lovren out of form, may not be the best, but Scotland have to get that far up the pitch first. It is a formidable task.

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