May 22 (Reuters) - Croatia’s World Cup squad will be full of gifted players but it is the Balkan nation’s towering striker Mario Mandzukic who stands out as the key figure in their bid to reach the knockout stages after two decades of failure.
Having caused shockwaves by powering through to the 1998 semi-finals, Croatia have failed to get past the group stage since — largely because they lacked the clinical finishing of a ruthless hitman.
The 32-year old Mandzukic, Croatia’s top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals, is all that and more.
Thriving in his preferred position of an old-fashioned number nine, Mandzukic is one of the most selfless modern-day centre forwards as his movement off the ball and assists are priceless to his team at club and international level.
Mandzukic’s most productive years came in a 2012-2014 spell at Bayern Munich, where he won two Bundesliga titles, two German Cups and the 2013 Champions League before moving to Atletico Madrid for a solitary season.
Many pundits thought he was in the twilight of his career when he joined Juventus in 2015 but he turned out to be a valuable asset in their continued domestic dominance as well as in a continental breakthrough.
Having clinched two Serie A titles and Coppa Italia trophies in his first two seasons at Juve, Mandzukic also helped them to reach the 2017 Champions League final in which he scored one of the competition’s most spectacular goals.
The striker netted in a 4-1 defeat by Real Madrid with a breathtaking overhead kick and although it was scant consolation after Juve’s thumping defeat, it underlined his versatility as Mandzukic’s talent matches his outstanding work rate.
Midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic may still pull the strings in midfield for Croatia, but Mandzukic’s finishing will be key to Croatia making an impact in Russia. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ed Osmond)