Wales travelled to Osijek in June and were defeated 2-1 by Croatia after a James Lawrence own goal and Ivan Perisic strike while David Brooks was able to grab a late consolation. While Croatia were deserved winners that day, Wales asked them questions and will certainly hope to do so again on home turf.
Since that game, Wales have lost in Budapest, but a home win over Azerbaijan and a draw in Slovakia have kept their hopes of qualification alive. Croatia, meanwhile, defeated Slovakia away 4-0, drew in Azerbaijan and, on Thursday, were ruthless in a 3-0 win over Hungary in Split. One encouraging sign for Wales will have been the issues Croatia had in Azerbaijan as manager Zlatko Dalic picked the same side two games in a row and they tired clearly in that disappointing Baku draw.
The Croatian squad is, this time around, missing Sime Vrsaljko and Josip Pivaric in the full-back roles, Marcelo Brozovic in the centre of midfield and the injured Andrej Kramaric. However, as their qualification campaign has gone on, they have been able to successfully plug the gaps with Karlo Bartolec, Borna Barisic and, most notably, new first-choice striker Bruno Petkovic.
Wales have no such worries and have a near full-strength side to choose from. Aaron Ramsey is an injury doubt, but manager Ryan Giggs stated he was hopeful that Ramsey would be available to play a role at some point against Croatia, albeit it is unlikely to be from the start.
Predicted Line Ups
Wales: Hennessy, Roberts, Lockyer, Rodon, Davies, Vaulks, Allen, Wilson, Williams, James, Bale
Croatia: Livakovic, Bartolec, Lovren, Vida, Barisic, Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Vlasic, Brekalo, Petkovic
Daniel James vs Borna Barisic
Daniel James has been the closest thing approaching to a bright spot that Manchester United have had this season with Rio Ferdinand naming him as the club’s most influential player this season so far. Similarly, Borna Barisic has risen to two different challenges - becoming the best player and leader of an improving Rangers side and becoming Croatia’s first-choice left-back due to the long term injury worries of Josip Pivaric and Ivan Strinic.
However, Daniel James is a notable improvement on the wingers that Barisic normally faces in Scotland and, with both in form, it will be a fascinating battle to see who is able to get on top, especially after Barisic’s impressive attacking display against Hungary.
Tom Lockyer vs Bruno Petkovic
Croatia will look to make the most of a little vs large match up in the centre as 5ft 11 centre back Tom Lockyer will lock horns with Croatia’s 6ft 4 target man Bruno Petkovic. Petkovic’s form since brought into the national team has been fearsome - four goals in six caps, with a double against Hungary, including a stunning backheel flicked finish under pressure to put them 2-0 up.
Able to cause discomfort even to the defence of Manchester City in the Champions League, Lockyer will have to be at his very best to be able to keep Petkovic controlled given the size and skill advantage Petkovic will possess.
Forward Harry Wilson struck a confident tone, telling The Independent: “We went out there in the summer and, although we lost, we created chances. We know we’re good enough to create chances against them and it’s up to us to take them.”
Zlatko Dalic talked team news with Sportske Novosti. On missing Marcelo Brozovic, he said: “I have solutions. We’ll see what happens with Badelj. He’s had a muscle problem and we don’t have much time. But he’s an option. Aside from him, Kovacic, but we’ll see. Otherwise, Vlasic is in contention. We will miss Brozovic’s energy and aggression.”