Top-of-the-group Croatia will be looking to take one step closer to sealing qualification for the World Cup 2022 when they host Slovakia in Osijek on Monday evening.
The hosts currently sit level on points with Russia at the top of Group H, whilst the visitors will be hoping to spring a surprise to keep their slim hopes of reaching next year’s global tournament alive.
Croatia have bounced back from their heartache suffered in their round-of-16 exit in the 2020 European Championship earlier this year by maintaining their place at the top of Group H in World Cup 2022 qualifying via an unbeaten four-game streak since.
During this spell, they are yet to concede a goal, despite tough trips to fellow group-leaders Russia, and Slovakia, and have managed three victories during this time as well.
Along with Russia, the Blazers have built a healthy six-point lead ahead of third-placed Slovenia, meaning a playoff spot at the very least can be sealed on Monday if they better their result.
With Russia and Slovenia both winning on Friday evening, it was vital for Croatia to do the same in Cyprus, which they comfortably managed thanks to goals from Ivan Perisic, Josko Gvardiol and Marko Livaja in a 3-0 victory.
Despite Luka Modric missing a penalty early in the second half with the score at 1-0, and the second and third goals not arriving till late, the result was never in doubt for the visitors after dominating from start to finish in a comprehensive display.
After participating in five of the last six World Cup tournaments, the Eastern-Europeans look set to compete on the global stage yet again, where they will look to put in another impressive run after finishing runners-up to France in 2018.
As for Slovakia, their hopes of qualifying for football’s biggest tournament next year hang by a thread after defeat on Friday evening.
Falling 1-0 in Russia means that Monday’s visitors find themselves in fourth place when they head to Osijek, seven points behind first and second place, and with just three games remaining.
As a result, this match has become decisive, and nothing less than a win will be acceptable for head coach Stefan Tarkovic and his players.
With just the six goals conceded in qualifying so far, the solid foundations have been laid for a potentially successful campaign, but struggles in the attacking third of the pitch have caused this desperate situation that the Slovakians find themselves in.
Friday’s defeat to Russia was the perfect example of these problems, as despite achieving 74% possession of the ball and attempting 27 shots on their opponent’s goal, the Repre could not find a way past the stubborn Russians.
To rub salt into their wounds even further, Slovakia restricted their hosts to just a single shot on target all match, and the decisive goal arrived via a Milan Skriniar own goal midway through the first half.
Croatia World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Croatia form (all competitions):
Slovakia World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Slovakia form (all competitions):
Croatia have had to deal with a number of injuries during the international period so far, with goalkeeper Ivica Ivusic, defenders Dejan Lovren and Josip Juranovic, and forward Mislav Orsic all missing out after being named in the initial squad.
Marseille defender Duje Caleta-Car was one of the replacements called up to replace the absentees, and he started in Cyprus on Friday alongside RB Leipzig’s Gvardiol, who netted his first goal for his country.
The backline pairing came as a result of doubts over the fitness of the experienced Domagoj Vida as well, who did manage to make the bench.
Manager Zlatko Dalic may be tempted to reintroduce Vida to his starting lineup, but could also name an unchanged side after a dominating display against the Cypriots.
Meanwhile, the visitors are missing a number of important players during these qualifiers, with Robert Mak, Vladimir Weiss, Jakub Hromada and Martin Valjent all remaining unable to join up their national team, before Stanislav Lobotka also dropped out too.
The remainder of the squad were fully fit for Tarkovic heading into Friday’s defeat in Russia, and with no further injury concerns, he has a chance to rotate his side in search for a vital win.
Croatia possible starting lineup:
Livakovic; Stanisic, Caleta-Car, Gvardiol, Sosa; Modric, Brozovic, Kovacic; Vlasic, Kramaric, Perisic
Slovakia possible starting lineup:
Rodak; Pekarik, Satka, Skriniar, Hancko; Kucka, Hamsik; Schranz, Duda, Rusnak; Strelec
We say: Croatia 2-0 Slovakia
Croatia’s solid defensive displays, coupled with Slovakia’s inability to find the net regularly, mean that a clean sheet for the hosts on Monday is a likely outcome.
However, the visitors possess a mean defence themselves, so few goals are expected in this vital match, where the hosts should possess enough quality to all but seal qualification, whilst condemning their visitors to an unsuccessful qualifying campaign.
Source: | This article originally belongs to Sportsmole.co.uk