Croatia looking to spring a surprise at World Cup
ZAGREB, Croatia -- Croatia will be heading to the World Cup focused on one match: the tournament opener against host Brazil.
With confidence in full supply, the Croatians believe they can stage a major upset against the highly favored hosts on June 12 in Sao Paulo.
"World Cup opening games are always tense and nervous," Croatia captain Darijo Srna said. "Anything can happen. Surprises are always possible."
Back in 1998, no one believed Croatia -- still recovering from a bloody civil war in the Balkans in the early 1990s -- could finish third in its maiden World Cup. But with Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban leading the way, they did just that.
The road to the 2014 World Cup wasn't so smooth, but the Croats are hoping to rekindle the flame from their "Golden Generation." And the first test will come against the tournament favorites.
"Brazil in the first game with the whole world watching, it will be something," Croatia coach Niko Kovac said. "We will try to make it difficult for them."
Although Croatia no longer has star players like Suker, the talent in the national team football remains widespread.
This time, Croatia heads into the World Cup with a shaky defense, a strong midfield led by Luka Modric and the equally stylish Ivan Rakitic, and an attack spearheaded by prolific Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic and veteran Ivica Olic.
"We won't just be there as tourists," Kovac said. "You only get a shot at the World Cup every four years, so we want to leave behind a lasting impression."
Kovac's biggest challenge for the opener will be filling the hole created by Mandzukic's one-match suspension for his expulsion during the second playoff match against Iceland. Mandzukic, who has scored 13 goals in 48 games for Croatia, is expected to rejoin the starting lineup in the other group matches against Mexico and Cameroon.
Brazilian-born Eduardo Da Silva is the likely replacement.
In another setback, experienced midfielder Niko Kranjcar, 29, will miss the World Cup with a hamstring injury. His place in the starting lineup will likely be taken by 20-year-old Mateo Kovacic of Inter Milan.
"I'm extremely sorry for Niko," Kovac said. "He is one of the most experienced players in our squad and he deserved to be part of it in Brazil."
A potential weakness of the Croatian team is its goalkeepers. Stipe Pletikosa is Croatia's probable starter. The 34-year-old Pletikosa, who plays for Russian club Rostov, will need to be in top from if he is to stop the Brazilian strikers in front of their boisterous home crowd.
Another worry stems from the 10-match FIFA suspension of central defender Josip Simunic for leading fans in a pro-Nazi chant after the victory against Iceland. The 36-year-old Australian-born player will miss the World Cup after his appeal was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
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