Croatia boasts enviable talent in its midfield and attack and a lineup that can hold its own against anyone, but its World Cup track record hasn't been great. Can Luka Modric & Co. get over the hump in Russia?
Croatia rose to the occasion back in 1998 when it competed at its first World Cup, finishing third in France just six years after being recognized by FIFA and only three years after the Croatian War of Independence officially ended.
In the two decades since, Croatia has tended to blow hot and cold on the international stage and usually performs better at the European Championship than at the World Cup.
It has not made it past the group stage on the global stage since the golden generation of Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Robert Jarni shone so brightly 20 years ago, but a new crop of stars will be hoping to change that in Russia. Here's how Croatia stacks up entering the World Cup.
How They Qualified
Given its higher ranking and extra quality, Croatia would have fancied itself to win a tough European qualifying group ahead of Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey to get to Russia.
In reality, losses in Iceland and Turkey on matchdays six and eight respectively, as well as a last gasp equalizer from Finland in Rijeka on matchday nine, saw Croatia finish second behind Iceland and settle for a second chance in the UEFA playoffs.
Croatia only scored 15 times in its 10 group games, a goal tally lower than every other country that qualified from Europe, as well as many that didn't. However, its defensive record of conceding just four was bettered only by England and Spain.
In the playoffs, a seeded Croatia was paired with Greece. It suddenly had little problem finding the net, and the tie was effectively over after a 4-1 first-leg win thanks to goals from Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric. The second leg finished 0-0, Croatia's place in Russia never threatened.
Group D presents a tough challenge, with Croatia to face Iceland again so soon, as well as 2014 finalist Argentina and a talented and unpredictable Nigeria.
Argentina would be expected to top the standings, but the three other countries would all back themselves to take second place and progress to the knockout rounds.
First up for Croatia is Nigeria in Kaliningrad on June 16. A strong start in that game is a must, because next up it will be Argentina five days later. Depending on how the first two fixtures have gone, the final meeting with Iceland in Rostov-on-Don could be decisive.
Possible Route to the Final
Assuming it is Argentina who top Group D, Croatia would probably be looking at a last-16 encounter with France, if it can take second place ahead of the others. Croatia has never beaten France, but a palatable quarterfinal against Portugal or Uruguay awaits if that comes to pass.
Brazil would then be the most likely semifinal opponents, should Croatia wind up on that side of the bracket. If Croatia is to win Group D and France takes care of business, a more reasonable last-16 matchup against likely Denmark or Peru would wait, followed by a likely final-eight meeting against Spain or Portugal, whichever emerges victorious from Group B. There are no easy paths to winning the World Cup, but clearly the latter is to be preferred.
Goalkeepers: Lovre Kalinic (Dinamo Zagreb), Dominik Livakovic (Gent), Danijel Subasic (Monaco)
Defenders: Duje Caleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg); Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Josip Pivaric (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Strinic (AC Milan), Domagoj Vida (Besiktas), Sime Vrsajlko (Atletico Madrid)
Midfielders: Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Filip Bradaric (Rijeka), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)
Forwards: Nikola Kalinic (Milan), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Marko Pjaca (Juventus), Ante Rebic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
(4-3-3): Subasic; Vrsaljko, Corluka, Vida, Strinic; Rakitic, Brozovic, Modric; Kramaric, Mandzukic, Perisic.
Croatia should have enough to make it out of Group D, but that is certainly no easy feat, and anything other than an opening win against Nigeria will present an uphill struggle.
The knockout rounds will be even tougher, yet Croatia boasts top-class players who could really beat anyone on their day, as proven at Euro 2016 when they outclassed and beat Spain to finish top of their group. Whether the squad is balanced enough remains a concern, though.
If Croatia finishes second, a last-16 exit at the hands of the French seems the most likely outcome, but there isn't a side in the world that would feel wholly confident playing against a team that boasts the likes of Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic and Perisic. Croatia has true wildcard potential, and, as with largely every team in Group D, could either be a world beater or crash out in spectacular fashion.