Croatia earned plenty of plaudits for their contribution to a thrilling opening game of the World Cup, which proved a telling precursor of what has followed, but they now desperately need to earn some points. Some tough refereeing decisions, including a highly contentious penalty award, helped account for Croatia in Sao Paulo as Brazil came back from a goal down to triumph 3-1.
Still, with their midfield particularly impressing there was much hope that a last-16 berth remained very much in their sights. That task has since been made far tougher by the team always likely to be their closest rivals for second spot, Mexico, following up a win over Cameroon with an impressive draw against Brazil. It means that a defeat for Croatia in its second game against Cameroon would eliminate them and even a draw would leave them likely needing to beat Mexico by two clear goals on Monday.
Croatia will certainly be boosted in their quest for a victory by the return of Mario Mandzukic. The Bayern Munich striker was suspended from the opening game, his place taken by Nikica Jelavic, who offered nothing like the same presence up front and was replaced before the end. Also available again is left-back Daniel Pranjic. The Panathinaikos man, set to replace Sime Vrsaljko, did not hold back in stating how vital Mandzukic’s return was for Croatia.
“He definitely makes us stronger and you can't replace him like-for-like,” he said, according to FIFA.com. “He's prepared to go out and ‘die’ for the cause. Lajic [Jelavic] did really well against Brazil but Mario is Mario. We need him. We’re a totally different team without him.”
Mandzukic will provide the spearhead to a midfield that had the upper hand on its Brazilian counterparts for much of that opening game. In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who has completed a move to Barcelona since the opening game, Croatia have one of the best midfield’s in the tournament, certainly one of one of the most creative. Modric also continues to display his increased tenacity without the ball, allowing Croatia coach Niko Kovac to play two such technically gifted players.
It will be a midfield in sharp contrast to that of their opponents in Manaus. As expected, a trio of Alex Song, Stephane Mbia and Eyong Enoh offered precious little in the way of creativity and contributed to a moribund performance for the African side in a defeat to Mexico that could have been far heavier than just 1-0 had the offside law been applied correctly.
Coach Volker Finke’s tactics did little to help his side. Simply sitting back and looking to frustrate Mexico was out of keeping with the positivity that has been widespread in this World Cup to date. It also attempted to rely too heavily on a defense that, outside of Nicolas N’Koulou, didn’t appear up to repeated examination.
Up front, Samuel Eto’o, aged 33, lacked the dynamism to create chances single-handedly as he once did and is now likely to miss out against Croatia with a knee injury. Completing the problems for Cameroon was a general malaise that it would be easy to ascribe to the disputes that have regularly surrounded the squad, and particularly Eto’o, in recent years and that saw the team’s trip to Brazil delayed by haranguing over bonus payments. Eto’o has been accused of “treason” by local media in Cameroon for his supposed role in the strike, with the striker retorting by promising to reveal the truth behind the affair and name names after the tournament.
Hardly ideal preparation for Cameroon for what is a must-win game if they are to progress from the group stage for the first time since 1990. And Eto’o will likely be dishing the dirt sooner rather than later, with Croatia surely having the quality to get three points on the board.
Prediction: Croatia 2-0 Cameroon
Betting odds (Bovada.lv)
Croatia win: 20/33
Cameroon win: 9/2
When and where: The World Cup Group A match will kick off from the Arena Amazonia in Manaus at 6 p.m. ET.