By Mark Gleeson
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Croatia might have been under the radar coming into the World Cup finals but there will be few sides relishing the possibility of playing them after they displayed their quality with a 3-0 thumping of Argentina in Group D on Thursday.
The convincing result at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium put Croatia into the second round for the first time since their run to the semi-finals in their maiden World Cup appearance in France in 1998.
The latest generation – headlined by the attacking skills of Luka Modric, driving play of Ivan Rakitic and imposing presence upfront of Mario Mandzukic – will be looking to emulate the achievement of 20 years ago and will be fully entitled to do so on the basis of their showing in Russia so far.
The individual quality of their key players was backed up by solid wing back play and an understated, yet highly effective, turn in midfield by Marcelo Brozovic, brought in to use his speed to restrict space for Argentina's talisman Lionel Messi.
"This result and Argentina's poor display was due to our good game, our compact block all over the pitch, particularly when we didn't have the ball. We cut off the lines of passing, we wanted to avoid Messi getting the ball... I believe that we played a fantastic game," Modric told a news conference.
Thursday's victory followed an efficient display in their opening game against Nigeria in Kaliningrad on Saturday where a 2-0 triumph laid a solid foundation.
Not even the sending home of Nikola Kalinic on Monday – after he refused to come on as a substitute against Nigeria – seemed to put the squad off its stride, conversely serving only to unify the group, according to Croatian media reports.
Croatia had shown glimpses of their potential at the last European Championships in France two years ago when they beat Spain but went out in the second round to eventual winners Portugal after conceding in extra time.
They recovered from a patchy start – and brought in Zlatko Dalic as coach late last year – to finish behind Iceland in their qualifying group for Russia but in the November playoffs easily disposed of Greece over two legs.
Croatia now look ahead to playing Iceland again in their last Group D match in Rostov-on-Don on Tuesday and if they top the standings will return to Nizhny Novgorod on July 1 to play the runner-up in Group C in the last 16, hoping for rousing support from the locals.
"I think that we will win over additional fans. Whoever watched this match, whoever watched Croatia play, will surely start rooting for Croatia," said Dalic.
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)