Kovac looks to midfield trio in effort to spoil Sao Paulo party
Facing the host nation in a World Cup opener is difficult. It can make a team look like a mere plot device, a foil, a sacrificial member of the supporting cast. Everyone remembers Siphiwe Tshabalala's goal for South Africa at Soccer City four years ago, or the Philipp Lahm strike in Munich in 2006. Rafael Marquez's bundled equaliser for Mexico and Paulo Wanchope's double in Costa Rica's 4-2 defeat to Germany are less famous.
Not much is expected of Croatia tonight in Sao Paulo. Few people beyond their own population of 4.3 million would want them to spoil this long-planned party. Coach Niko Kovac is probably not too worried. Croatia's threat – to Brazil, to the rest of Group A and to the tournament beyond – lies in their elusive quality.
It has been a difficult last few years for the side who finished third in their first World Cup at France '98. Croatia did not even reach the last World Cup and went out at the group stage at Euro 2012.
They nearly did not reach this tournament either, finishing second in their group. Igor Stimac, a hero of the 1998 team, resigned as coach at the end of the group phase and was replaced by his old team-mate Kovac, who oversaw the 2-0 play-off win over Iceland.
Kovac, who had been Under-21 coach before, was a hugely popular choice in Croatia. He won 83 caps as a midfielder for the national team and captained the side in Germany in 2006. That is where Kovac was from, born to Bosnian-Croat parents, and like his brother, Robert, he spent almost his whole career playing in the Bundesliga.
Those German roots give Kovac a slightly different perspective on the game. Midfielder Niko Kranjcar is missing this World Cup through injury, but before the tournament he talked about the difference his old team-mate would make. "His mentality and character was always as a leader, on and off the pitch," Kranjcar said. "He was born and brought up in Germany, so he will bring that side that is very different from our mentality in Croatia. We are much more open, so the discipline might do us good."
Since taking over, Kovac has been quietly working on a more balanced team than the one he inherited from Stimac. The strength of the side, by a distance, is in midfield. Kovac will put out three of Europe's most exciting and graceful ball players in the heart of his 4-2-3-1 system: Luka Modric, in the form of his life with Champions League winners Real Madrid, the mobile Ivan Rakitic, who has just helped Sevilla to the Europa League title, and in the No 10 role, Internazionale's exciting 20-year-old Mateo Kovacic.
Croatia have the ability to keep the ball away from Brazil tonight, but their problems lie elsewhere. Mario Mandzukic, their best centre-forward, is suspended, meaning that veteran Ivica Olic, or even former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva, is likely to start instead. The defence is not especially quick either.
Brazil have concerns of their own, of course, and are rightly strong favourites. But if they are distracted by the occasion, Croatia could pounce. (© Daily Telegraph, London)