By Zoran Milosavljevic
(Reuters) - Having reached the 2018 World Cup after a patchy campaign during which they sacked coach Ante Cacic, Croatia will head to the 32-team tournament in Russia hoping to emulate the Balkan nation's 1998 success when they made the semi-finals.
The Croatians have reached 10 out of 12 major tournaments as an independent nation but have made little sustained impact as subsequent generations failed to match the 1998 team's accomplishment.
They have not advanced to the World Cup knockout stages since and have made it out of the group stage at three European Championships in five attempts.
Croatia's fifth World Cup finals appearance offers more cause for optimism after a talented side, led by captain Luka Modric and towering striker Mario Mandzukic, produced their best qualifying performances when they needed to most.
After slipping from first to third in the home straight of Europe's Group I, Croatia squeezed into the playoffs with a 2-0 win at Ukraine in their final match after Zlatko Dalic took over from Cacic.
The Croatians then blew away Greece 4-1 in the first leg of their playoff and held on comfortably for a 0-0 draw in the return, with Dalic shuffling his squad to add zest and creativity lacking under his predecessor.
Dalic has plenty of quality to choose from up front and in midfield, but a lack of options at the back remains a concern with inconsistent central defender Dejan Lovren still a regular starter alongside Domagoj Vida.
Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic give Croatia depth in midfield, while Andrej Kramaric and winger Ivan Perisic boost the attacking firepower in deeper roles behind Mandzukic.
As one of the eight second-seeded teams, Croatia should make the last 16 but past failures and a possibly tricky draw mean they will take nothing for granted.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ed Osmond)