ZAGREB (Reuters) - The ability of central midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to recover from gruelling club seasons will be essential if Croatia are to make an impact at Euro 2016.
Modric has had another fine season at Real Madrid while Rakitic shone at arch-rivals Barcelona, proving an apt replacement for the club’s playmaker Xavi.
The form of both will be crucial to Croatia’s adventurous strategy which is based on their lively midfield setting up a potent three-pronged attack led by towering striker Mario Madzukic.
Euro 2016 is the eighth time Croatia have qualified for a major tournament in 10 attempts as an independent nation. This will be their fourth European Championship and they will look to at least emulate quarter-final appearances in 1996 and 2008 when they were seconds away from advancing to the last four.
Croatia took a 1-0 lead against Turkey with one minute left in extra time but conceded an equaliser with the last kick of the game and then lost the penalty shootout in an epic clash in Vienna.
The Turks again stand in their way in Euro 2016, with holders Spain and the Czech Republic completing arguably the toughest pool of the 24-nation event.
However, the tournament’s expansion from 16 teams has given the Croatians a fair chance of progressing from Group D, with the top two from each section and the best four third-placed teams guaranteed knockout-stage berths.
The team can be inconsistent, though, and past campaigns have been marred by dressing-room discontent and fan racism.
In qualifying for France they seemed to be in control of their group after winning four and drawing two of their opening six games, but a 0-0 result at Azerbaijan and a 2-0 defeat in Norway triggered the departure of coach Niko Kovac, who reportedly came to loggerheads with key players.
In his place came 62-year-old Ante Cacic, who steadied the ship to see them finish group runners-up behind Italy.
Editing By Neil Robinson