Ahead of the opening game of the World Cup, ITV pundits were discussing which nations must seize the opportunity to impress in Russia as their squad reaches the peak of its strength.
Many resist the term ‘golden generation’, fearing perhaps that it sets teams up to fail. But it is surely an apt description of a Croatia side boasting a number of top-quality players and a couple of world-class stars to boot.
The Croatian squad may be one of the top ten at the tournament but, with an average age of 30 in their likely starting elevens, it is also one of the oldest.
Indeed, Russia may be the last chance for a talented group to truly make their mark.
Experienced talent will soon be on the wane
Croatia’s midfield and attack feature a number of players who have shone for their clubs on the European stage- none more so than Real Madrid’s midfield maestro Luka Modric, inarguably a world-class, pace-setting footballer.
Modric, who because of his incisive passing abilities has been shifted into a number ten role by manager Zlatko Dalic, will be 36 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, meaning he will, simply put, be in decline.
He is just one of several stars who will be crucial in Russia but, in all likelihood, far past their prime in Qatar.
Barcelona’s masterful passer Ivan Rakitic, for example, will have turned 34. Mario Mandzukic, a serial goalscorer who has turned in an impressive output for virtually every side he’s represented and scored 30 goals for his country, will be making retirement plans, and Ivan Perisic, the attacker who offers firepower and creativity in equal measure, will be 33-years-old.
All are key players for the Croatians – together, Mandzukic and Perisic netted all but one of their goals at the last World Cup (the now-retired Ivica Olic got the other) - and all will soon cross the threshold between their theoretical prime and inevitable decline.
But what about the younger guns?
It’s not all doom and gloom for Croatia, though, with a decent batch of younger talent set to take the mantle from the veterans.
Inter Milan’s creative midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, Matteo Kovacic, out-of-favour at Real but certainly the subject of interest elsewhere, attacking right-back Sime Vrsaljko, a quarter of Atletico’s imperious defence, and Juventus winger Marko Pjaca, who has plenty of untapped potential, are all in and around their mid-20s.
The improving Andrej Kramaric, identified by many as one of the ones to watch this month, is also worth a mention.
They might ensure Croatia remain plucky outsiders in the next few tournaments, but they may well miss the purring midfield quality of Modric and Rakitic, as well as Mandzukic’s potency in front of goal.
This could be their best chance to get the business end for the foreseeable future.
Dark horses who fail to clear early fences
Croatia are invariably mentioned when discussing ‘dark horses’ but in the last three tournaments, their evident potential has come to nothing.
Back at Euro 2012, it was a group stage exit after a narrow defeat to ultimate winners Spain in their final game, and two years later in Brazil, they again failed to make the knockout rounds, their hopes of progression collapsing when they shipped three goals in ten second-half minutes in a decisive clash with Mexico.
Victory against the Spaniards during the preliminaries at Euro 2016 seemed a statement of intent, but after topping their group on seven points, they were knocked out by eventual champions Portugal in the last sixteen, with Ricardo Quaresma bagging the winner in the 117th minute.
Early exits have proven all too common: since they finished in an astonishing third-place in their first World Cup as an independent nation in 1998, they have failed to reach the knockout rounds of football’s biggest competition.
Potential route of progression
Before the Croatians can even think about the knockouts, they must navigate their way through a tricky group containing the phenomenal attack of Argentina, Euro 2016 revelation Iceland and fired-up underdogs Nigeria.
Croatia are stronger than two of the three in all departments so should get at least six points on the board but will likely need to get something against Argentina, certainly a possibility after some Messi magic saw them only scrape through qualification, if they are to avoid France, among the tournament favourites, in the round of 16.
If indeed they can claim top spot in the group, Denmark, Peru or Australia likely await. Progression to the quarter finals would be expected, but then a clash with Spain or Portugal seems inevitable. By that point, though, they could dare to dream.
Either way, a strong start against the Nigerians on Saturday is essential given the closeness of Group D.