A top seed is on the line on Friday when Croatia host Italy in a Euro 2016 qualifier in an empty Poljud Stadium in Split. The winner of the match would almost certainly be guaranteed a top seed in the UEFA World Cup qualifying draw on July 25, with Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Romania having already clinched four of the nine spots.
Midfielders Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti, along with defenders Andrea Barzagli and forward Simone Zaza, are not available due to injuries. Gigi Buffon is battling elbow problems, though he hinted at playing on Thursday. Head coach Antonio Conte has chosen AC Milan midfielders Giacomo Bonaventura along with veteran Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo and his teammate Claudio Marchisio. Conte said he may deviate from his 3-5-2 formation.
"Croatia are a very good team and they proved it at the San Siro but we have to qualify," Conte told the Italian football federation.
With a 4-1-0 record and a two-point lead over the Italians, Croatia can extend their streak without a loss and build on its stellar performances throughout qualifying. Powered by Ivan Perisic’s team-high four goals, Croatia have outscored opponents, 15-2.
However, head coach Nico Kovac will be without his superstar central midfielder Luka Modric. The Real Madrid talisman is injured and has appeared in only one international match since last year’s World Cup. Croatia will also miss suspended defender Verdan Corluka, who ranks third on the team with 81 career appearances for his country.
Still, midfielders Marcelo Brozovic and recent Barcelona treble champion Ivan Rakitic can make up for Modric’s absence against a talented Italian midfield. Most recently, Rakitic played an integral role in the Catalans 3-1 victory over Juventus in the Champions League final, netting a goal in the first four minutes.
Croatia received a one-match crowd ban due to racist chants during a 5-1 home win over Norway in March, and after flares were thrown on the pitch during a 1-1 result against Italy in Milan in November.
“There is no favorite and it is a very particular game because it will be played without a crowd,” Kovac said in a press conference.
Kickoff Time: 2:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Live Online: A live stream is available at Watch ESPN here
Prediction: Italy over Croatia, 2-1