Is Bruno Petkovic the unlikely new face of Croatia?
Petkovic holding off the Slovak defence picture: Getty Images/Joe Klamar

A year ago, Dinamo Zagreb brought in Bruno Petkovic to back up their front line. Little was really expected of him. He had moved to Italy incredibly early in his career, joining Catania at 18 and his time in Italy was frustrating, in spite of playing for good clubs in Bologna or Hellas Verona. Save for one decent season at Trapani, his goalscoring record was poor. In 81 appearances in Italy, he scored only 16 goals, not a single one of those in Serie A.

Rumours that Petkovic preferred playing video games to training suggested an attitude issue which managers hadn’t been able to cure him of. Dinamo's manager Nenad Bjelica took a chance that Petkovic would reward him and rarely could a chance have paid off so handsomely.

Standing 6ft 4in tall, Petkovic looks like he should be nothing more than a brute target man. However, Petkovic has extensive experience playing Futsal and, as such, the close control and first touch of a much smaller man. And it is that technique that numerous sides have been punished by.

Signs that Petkovic had suddenly turned the corner into realising his talent first came in a tight Zagreb derby against Lokomotiva Zagreb last Autumn. A ball was floated in from a free-kick deep into the six-yard box – Petkovic pivoted and performed an outrageous overhead kick to win the game for Dinamo as they sauntered to the Prva Liga title.

The perfect Dinamo goal

As the season wore on, Petkovic became more important to the squad and played the starring role in the undoubted peak of their season, the Europa League first knockout round win over Viktoria Plzen. Petkovic was the provider of their first goal, picking the ball up 25 yards inside his own half, sprinting at the Plzen defence, he twisted inside then out, leaving his marker on his behind, before backheeling the ball into the centre of the box, where Mislav Orsic would smash it into the top corner. As a goal, it was the perfect distillation of what Dinamo aim to do when they step onto the pitch.

He would score in the match too, with Orsic assisting him with a ball that hung slightly behind him. Petkovic’s first touch brought it out from his feet. His second put it past the goalkeeper.

Dinamo’s main man

Much of Petkovic’s improvement has been because of how Dinamo play. In many ways, they are a classic counter-attacking side – pouncing with pace as soon as their opponents are lured into a mistake.

But to describe them as that would be rather simplistic. Rather, they are a team who have discovered the artistry in playing the game without the ball. They are compact without the ball, constantly breaking up any attempt to attack them down the middle by ensuring positional discipline rather than necessarily having high-intensity presses. Petkovic does not hare about trying to force mistakes from his opponents, instead, he simply makes sure he is in the right position to profit from mistakes when they happen. It means that when high-intensity phases of play occur, he is able to be at his most explosive.

Star making performance

Since the World Cup and the international retirement of Mario Mandzukic, Croatia have struggled for an option upfront. Andrej Kramaric has been the previous first choice – his scoring rate in the Bundesliga for Hoffenheim is formidable – but his style of play did not fit the style of play Croatia wanted to play. Ante Rebic was thrown up front on occasion but, ultimately, is not a striker.

As such, Petkovic has been brought into the side to provide an option. Injury to Kramaric meant he started against Slovakia, marked by Milan Skriniar, one of the best defenders in Serie A. Petkovic dominated. In fact, his stats were scarcely believable - a 100% dribble rate from six attempts, 5 out of 6 aerial duels won, 6 shots with 3 on target, 2 key passes and all out of only 61 touches. While his goal took much of the headlines, a sublime first touch taking him into a one on one with Martin Dubravka and a cool finish, perhaps his most eyebrow-raising moment came on 30 minutes. He picked the ball up centrally 30 yards out, drove straight into the heart of the box, slaloming past and brushing aside three challenges before a low shot was saved well.

In 90 minutes, Petkovic made his case to be the permanent number nine for Croatia. It was not just an impressive personal performance, it was the best performance put together by the World Cup runners up since Russia 2018. Against Azerbaijan, it was his play that led to Luka Modric's opening penalty. While Andrej Kramaric’s record is undeniably impressive at club level, Petkovic’s face seems to fit the side far more and, when it comes to the Champions League, Petkovic may well strut his stuff impressively on that stage also.

In the space of 12 months, he has turned from a forgotten prospect into an irresistible force and given Croatia the heir to the throne of Mario Mandzukic they so desperately needed. Long may it last.