Four years ago, with Italy fearing a biscotto, Jesus Navas scored the only goal for La Roja on 88 minutes to eliminate Croatia at the end of an nerve-shredding encounter in Gdansk. Just moments earlier, Ivan Rakitic had squandered a glorious opportunity to send the Balkans through as group winners an eliminate Spain with a point-blank header. Spain and Italy both went all the way to the final and the rest, as they say, is history.
The case for Spain to win this tournament for a third successive time has been made in my outright preview, yet only fine margins prevent a tidy Croatia team from being widely-accepted as part of the next echelon of teams when comparing the best that European international football has to offer and there’s significant value in the standout 9/4 quote about them reaching the quarter-finals.
At Euro 2008, the Croats topped a group containing Germany and were just seconds away from a place in the semis when taking the lead against the Turks in the dying embers of extra time. However, they overdid their celebrations and hadn’t reckoned on a last-gasp Semih Senturk leveller, after which Slaven Bilic’s troops were in no emotional state to survive a penalty shoot-out.
Then there was the short straw they pulled at Brazil 2014 when a dubious penalty in the curtain raiser against the hosts put them on the back foot, followed by a trip to the jungle left them exhausted for a group decider with Mexico, who also benefited from an extra day’s rest. Needless to say, Croatia held their own for 70 minutes but were eventually overpowered and went down 3-1.
With an experienced squad battle-hardened by those setbacks, you’d expect them to be more forceful in shaping their own destiny this time around. Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka were both 22 on that cruel night in Vienna, and Ivan Rakitic just 20, while Domagoj Vida, Gordon Schildenfeld, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic have appeared at the past two major tournaments, giving Croatia a core of seven players aged between 27 and 31.
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So we’re talking about a team with serious pedigree, one that I make about 3/10 to make the last 16, meaning that a knockout date with either Belgium or Italy - the middle ground and most likely route of three possiblities - carries implied odds of 6/4 on Ante Cacic’s men to qualify. In that scenario, I’d make Croatia no bigger than 11/10 to progress.
Meanwhile, as already alluded to in the intro, the Czech Republic might be doomed from the outset. Pavel Vrba’s men have been branded in some quarters as a swashbuckling outfit capable of scoring and conceding in equal measure. And yes, a run of 19 games without a clean sheet is obviously cause for serious concern. However, a conversion rate of 37 per cent of shots on target in qualifying is unlikely to be sustainable.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Turkey and the Czechs, considering they qualified together. And while the Czechs topped the group, four points in front of the Turks, mainly due to a blistering start of four straight wins in late 2013, it was fairly obvious Turkey were the stronger team as they ran out 2-0 winners in Prague on the penultimate matchday.
The Czechs are taking heart from the fact they escaped the group against expectations four years ago but this section will be much tougher than games against Russia, Greece and a Poland side that buckled under the pressure of being hosts. Therefore, a bet on the Czech Republic to finish bottom of the group at 6/4 looks like a solid wager. I make it an even money shot.
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