Matt Jones looks at the talking points as Spain take on Croatia in the Nations League
Croatia begin their UEFA Nations League voyage on Tuesday as they travel to Elche to take on the sublime talents of Spain.
Luis Enrique’s side are on a high after the former Barcelona manager’s reign got off to a bright start with a 2-1 win at Wembley over England on Saturday.
Zlatko Dalic’s side, meanwhile, are back in competitive action after a superb summer saw them reach the World Cup final, where they were beaten 4-2 by France.
Ahead of what should be a fascinating encounter, we look at three talking points:
ENRIQUE ERA ENRICHES SPAIN
It would probably be a bit much to say the beginning of the Enrique reign placed a band aid over Spain’s gaping World Cup wound, but it definitely started the healing process.
And it’s certainly a good idea to get the Spanish media back onside, with La Roja’s performance at Wembley having the Spanish press practically salivating at the prospect of a nation getting back to their best – the country that won the 2010 World Cup and back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012.
“This is the new Spain”, hailed the country’s top sports daily Marca while Diario AS commented: “A triumph that opens the Nations League and closes the nightmare of the World Cup”.
An embarrassing World Cup bookended a disastrous six-year period since Spain were crowned Euro 2012 champions.
At the 2014 World Cup they endured a humiliating group stage exit, failing to recover from a 5-1 hammering at the hands of the Dutch in their opening game. Two years later in defence of their European crown they won just once as they were dumped out by limited Italy in the last 16. Now they are rebuilding following a timid exit in Russia, failing to recover from a tumultuous start to the tournament when Julen Lopetegui’s leaked move to Real Madrid was deemed an unforgiveable sin and he was jettisoned before a ball had been kicked.
But they still have the individual talent – across the board they arguably possess the most talented squad in international football. Saul Niguez, the Atletico Madrid midfielder who didn’t play a single minute at the World Cup, embodies the new approach: tenacious, direct and supremely skilful.
Spain just needed a solid structure to be established and a confident and experienced coach to get them back on track. In Enrique, they appear to have that.
ARE CROATIA NOW AN ELITE NATION?
In quite stark contrast, Croatia enjoyed a stunning World Cup.
Dalic’s side were the darlings of Russia, with Luka Modric and Co finally able to eclipse the ‘Golden Generation’ who had made such an impression as a fledgling nation back at France ’98.
As La Roja buckled under the strain of the Lopetegui scandal and a host of star names underperformed – Croatia rose to every considerable challenge placed before them.
From Nikola Kalinic being sent home from after refusing to go on as a substitute in their opening 2-0 win against Nigeria, the Vatreni then had to go the distance in their three knockout games leading up to the final.
They twice had to show their mental fortitude in penalty shootout wins over Denmark and Russia – the former seeing captain Modric missing a spot kick to win it in extra time before burying his penalty in the shootout.
They fell heartbreaking at the final hurdle as star-studded France proved a step too far. So where do they go now? Establishing themselves as a truly elite force must be the target.
With a cast that boasts some of Europe’s top talents – Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, as well as Mario Mandzukic, Mateo Kovacic, Sime Vrsaljko, Marcelo Brozovic and Marco Pjaca – they have to strive for stardom.
Their Russia heroics saw them vault up to fourth from 17th in the FIFA world rankings. That assisted in them being placed in the top-tier League A of the Nations League. Success in this fledgling competition and even at Euro 2020 should be the height of their ambitions.
MODRIC MAGIC CAN CONJURE BALLON D’OR
Modric’s quest for individual recognition on the global stage can ensure Croatia’s standards don’t drop following their fantastic showing at the World Cup finals.
The Madrid magician was the life and soul of his nation in Russia – scoring twice in the group stages and netting crucial penalties in shootout victories over Denmark and Russia.
More than that, he carried the creative and leadership burden, while fellow high-profile midfielder Rakitic actually seemed to struggle with being thrust into the limelight – he is able to operate more from the shadows at Barcelona where clubmates Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho attract more of the column inches.
It’s somewhat the same for 5ft 8in midfielder Modric at Madrid, yet the diminutive dynamo seemed to grow in stature with each game. Hungry for more responsibility and pressure.
His exploits, plus a fine domestic season during 2017/18 – ne notched six assists in La Liga (a joint high since arriving in Spain) – have led to increasing belief that he can challenge for the Balon d’Or and help break the duopoly Messi and Cristaino Ronaldo have held over the trophy for the past decade.
Mohamed Salah will have something to say about that too as Liverpool’s explosive Egyptian will also be in the running to upstage Ronaldo and Messi.
But more magic from Modric in the Nations League – starting with orchestrating an eye-catching triumph over Spain – will add to his cause and the feeling that he could conjure the impossible, toppling the game’s mighty duo.