Russia 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia will make their UEFA Nations League bow on Tuesday night, when they lock horns with Spain in Elche.
The match will be Croatia’s second since the Vatreni’s defeat to France in the World Cup final, their friendly with European Champions Portugal ending 1-1 last week, and they line up as 9/2 outsiders with BetBright.
La Furia Roja got their UEFA Nations League campaign off to a winning start at the weekend, beating England 2-1 at Wembley, thanks to goals from Saul Niguez and Rodrigo Moreno – two players with just 21 full international caps between them.
It was a neat encapsulation of the evolution currently under way within the Spanish setup, following the post-World Cup appointment of Luis Enrique, and the international retirement of former national team stalwarts Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, as well as the current banishment from the squad of Jordi Alba.
While he was in charge of Barcelona, Luis Enrique installed a slightly more direct style of play with the intention of getting the ball to a fearsome front three of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar as quickly as possible.
It will be interesting to see whether he was chosen as Spain’s next head coach in order to oversee a similar process in the coming years, as the country looks to recover from three disappointing tournament performances on the bounce.
This summer’s penalty shoot-out defeat by Russia in the round of 16 was particularly underwhelming and insipid, with Spain’s possession obsession almost bordering on self-parody as they kept the ball with ease without ever really threatening their opponents’ goal. Enrique, you feel, will be keen to strike a better balance as Spain prepare for the European Championship in 2020.
Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya, Inigo Martinez, Diego Llorente, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Pau Lopez, Suso, Rodri, Dani Ceballos and Sergi Roberto have all played for their nation on fewer than 10 occasions, but find themselves as part of the current squad. Marcos Asensio, Dani Carvajal, Isco and Alvaro Morata have featured more often but are 26 years old or younger.
There is certainly a fresher feel to this group of players, and Spain thoroughly deserved the three points they collected from Wembley after a controlled all-round performance on Saturday evening. The visitors may have started slowly and conceded the first goal, but they did a fine job of keeping England at arm’s length for much of the encounter.
Croatia reached the World Cup final for the first time in their relatively short history this summer, beating Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland, Denmark, Russia and England, before coming up short against France in the showpiece event in Moscow.
The Vatreni overachieved by making it as far as they did and will look back on Russia 2018 with fond memories for decades to come. Theirs was not a particularly young squad, however, so it is hard to see that achievement being the start of something more, rather than the final flourishing of an immensely talented generation.
Star man Luka Modric is now 33, for instance, and while he has plenty to offer in the short-term he will be significantly past his best by the time the Euros roll around. He does remain part of the international setup – there were some suggestions after he won the Golden Ball at the World Cup that the Real Madrid man might step aside – but striker Mario Mandzukic and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic have both called time on their Croatia careers, while Dejan Lovren is not part of the current group.
While Croatia will not be among the favourites to triumph at Euro 2020, there is still enough quality within the ranks for them to cause Spain - the UEFA Nations League outright joint-favourites - problems on Tuesday.
The metronomic Modric remains the key man and will set the tempo of his side’s passing, but this is a game in which the Vatreni are likely to see less of the ball than their opponents.
The speed and direct running of Ivan Perisic will therefore be a key outlet for the visitors to Elche, although fellow winger Ante Rebic will not be involved and could be a big miss. Spain, meanwhile, will focus on dominating the ball while also retaining incision and an edge to their passing.
It is a formula which will probably bring success in front of their own fans, although there are still question marks about La Furia Roja’s new-look defence – so it could be worth backing both teams to score at 11/10 with 888Sport.
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