Croatia will certainly not be short of motivation at Euro 2012 and have an outside chance of making it quarter-finals.
Their squad may lack in quality and depth as compared to their more formidable group opponents, but Croatia will certainly not be short of motivation at Euro 2012. The tournament will be the last for the coach Slaven Bilic, who has agreed to take over at Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow following the European Championship. With the popular Bilic having overseen one of the most successful periods for the national team during his six years at the helm, the players, many of whom are now in their 30s, will be keen to give him a fitting send-off, more so after they missed the 2010 World Cup.
For a while there were fears that Croatia would not make it to the tournament in Poland and Ukraine either, after a surprise 1-0 defeat in Georgia in qualification. Eventually they finished behind group winners Greece after an inconsistent campaign that saw Bilic's tactical decisions come under the scanner, and had little trouble in overcoming Turkey in the play-offs, while also exacting revenge for their painful exit on penalties at the hands of the same team in Euro 2008.
Having been placed in a difficult group with Spain, Italy and Ireland, much of Croatia's progress will depend on their star player, Luka Modric. When on song, Modric is one of the best creative midfielders around, and Tottenham have benefited from his range of passing and movement. However, a dip in the Premier League club's form earlier this year coincided with Modric looking tired and burned-out, and that will be a major concern for Bilic, as will the lack of goals from the man who was a part of UEFA's team of the tournament in 2008.
The other key player for the Croats in a strong midfield, Darijo Srna has a decent goalscoring record, but more critical for his side are the crosses their 29-year-old experienced skipper has regularly provided from the right flank. With Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic and Tottenham's Niko Krancjar also in the squad, along with Borussia Dortmund's promising Ivan Perisic who has been tipped to make an impact off the bench with his goal-scoring ability, there is no shortage of attacking options for Bilic, though prudence may see a defensive midfielder like Tomislav Dujmovic find a place in the tougher games against Spain and Italy.
Up front, Mario Mandzukic and the soon-to-retire Ivica Olic are likely to get the nod, though Nikica Jelavic, who scored 11 goals in 16 appearances for Everton in the second half of the season, may be used if Bilic needs to change his side's usual 4-4-2 formation to go with one striker up front instead. However, given their concerns in defence, with veterans like Josip Simunic and club irregulars like Vedran Corluka lacking in pace, by and large Croatia will depend on the offensive talent at their disposal and look to defend from the front and hit teams on the counter-attack.
Ever since their emergence from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia have built a reputation for doing well in the big tournaments. They finished third at the 1998 World Cup, while they reached the quarter-finals at the Euros in 1996 and 2008, the latter including a shock win over Germany. It is no surprise then that Bilic has high hopes from his side, which has not ended the year outside the top 10 in the FIFA rankings since 2006. "When you tell my team they are underdogs, that they have no chance, they tend to answer in a big way. We are going for success and I would be very disappointed if we did not make it out of our group. I don't say that we have as much quality as Spain. We are not better than Italy either. But we can defeat Italy and Spain."
Those two European powerhouses will still be the favourites, but Croatia are always capable of causing an upset if their key players stay fit and in form. Everything, however, will depend on their first match against the Republic of Ireland, for a loss could see an early and disappointing end to Bilic and Croatia's journey.
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (FC Rostov), Danijel Subasic (AS Monaco), Ivan Kelava (Dinamo Zagreb).
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Tottenham), Josip Simunic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Strinic (Dnipro), Gordon Schildenfeld (Eintracht Frankfurt), Domagoj Vida (Dinamo Zagreb), Jurica Buljat (Maccabi Haifa).
Midfielders: Danijel Pranjic (Bayern Munich), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Tomislav Dujmovic (Zaragoza), Luka Modric (Tottenham), Milan Badelj (Dinamo Zagreb), Niko Kranjcar (Tottenham), Ivan Perisic (Borussia Dortmund), Ivo Ilicevic (Hamburg SV).
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Wolfsburg), Eduardo Da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk), Nikica Jelavic (Everton), Ivica Olic (Bayern Munich).
Recent Euros performances:
2008 - Eliminated in quarter-finals
2004 - Eliminated in the group stage
2000 - Did not qualify
1996 - Eliminated quarter-finals
Keep an eye on: Luka Modric, Darijo Srna, Ivan Rakitic
Prediction: Croatia would exceed the expectations of even their demanding fans if they reach the quarter-finals, but given their knack of doing well against stronger teams and the fact that they have never lost to Italy in the six matches between them, they do have an outside chance of making it from their difficult group.
June 10, 2012: Croatia vs Ireland, Poznan
June 14, 2012: Croatia vs Italy, Poznan
June 18, 2012: Croatia vs Spain, Gdansk