May 22 (Reuters) - Factbox on the Croatia national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup:
FIFA ranking: 18 (till June 7)
Croatia have qualified for five out of six World Cup tournaments as an independent nation since they broke away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, having missed out only on the 2010 event in South Africa.
Their best result came in their maiden appearance in 1998, when they reached the semi-finals and finished third after a 2-1 win over the Netherlands in the playoff. They made group-stage exits in 2002, 2006 and 2014 after talented generations of players failed to live up to expectations.
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
The 51-year-old, Bosnian-born Dalic, who played as a midfielder for many clubs in the former Yugoslavia and Croatia, jumped into the hotseat at the most critical point of Croatia’s turbulent qualifying campaign.
He replaced Ante Cacic, who fell out with the team’s stalwarts and the FA after Croatia slipped from first to third in their group, to clinch a playoff berth with a 2-0 win at Ukraine in the final group match.
Dalic steered Croatia to an impressive 4-1 aggregate win over Greece in the playoffs to cement his position as head coach, having won the plaudits with a brave approach that was often missing under Cacic.
Luka Modric: The 32-year old playmaker is past his prime but is still an indispensable midfield presence for club and country. The tireless and creative Modric has been able to hold down his slot at Real Madrid and Croatia with a wide range of qualities, notably his sublime passing.
Ivan Rakitic: Barcelona’s central midfielder has taken over many of Modric’s attacking duties for Croatia as his immaculate passing and excellent ball control are complemented by an eye for goal and darting runs from deep positions.
The two constitute a powerful engine room which should propel Croatia to the knockout stages of the 32-nation tournament in Russia.
Mario Madzukic: Croatia boast a wealth of talent up front with players such as Nikola Kalinic, Andrej Kramaric and pacy winger Ivan Perisic always attacking threats.
But it is the towering yet skilful hitman Mandzukic who strikes fear into the hearts of defenders with his lethal finishing and ability to create space for his team mates with unselfish play.
The friendly against Brazil in Liverpool on June 3 will be a good barometer of Croatia’s World Cup prospects following a 2-0 win over Peru and 1-0 defeat of Mexico in March friendlies. Those victories came on the back of a 4-1 aggregate playoff qualifying win over Greece following a crunch 2-0 group win at Ukraine which sent the Croatians into the playoffs.
How they qualified:
Croatia finished runners-up in a tight qualifying group behind Iceland and ahead of Ukraine and Turkey to clinch a playoff berth. They dismantled Greece with a 4-1 home win followed by a 0-0 draw in Athens to book their World Cup berth.
Croatia are in a fiercely competitive Group D including Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland but should be good enough to reach the last 16 and possibly advance to the tournament’s latter stages. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ed Osmond)