(Reuters) – Ever since a talented Croatian side reached the 1998 World Cup semi-finals in their second major tournament as an independent nation, subsequent generations have been under pressure from the country’s fans and media to emulate the feat.
But Croatia have made group-stage exits in all other events expect Euro 2008, when they reached the quarter-finals, and Euro 2016 in which the Balkan nation flattered to deceive.
Having won their preliminary group with impressive performances including a shock 2-1 defeat of Spain, the Croatians crashed out in the last 16 after a 1-0 extra-time loss to eventual champions Portugal.
The bulk of the Euro 2016 squad, led by experienced playmaker Luka Modric, versatile midfielder Ivan Rakitic and towering striker Mario Mandzukic, was kept together to clinch a 2018 World Cup berth after a patchy qualifying campaign.
Having sacked unpopular coach Ante Cacic in the closing stages to make way for Zlatko Dalic when they slipped from first to third in the group, Croatia finished second behind Iceland and entered the playoffs.
They secured their spot in the 32-nation tournament in Russia with a comfortable 4-1 aggregate win over Greece as Dalic reshuffled the pack to ensure Croatia reached their 10th major event since gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
Billed by many of the country’s pundits as the most potent team since the 1998 one, Croatia will again carry the burden of high expectations in a tough Group D including Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.
Iceland are familiar foes as Croatia suffered a 1-0 loss in Reykjavik after a 2-0 home win in qualifying.
Nigeria represent uncharted territory for the Croatians as the two nations have never played each other while group favourites Argentina will be a tall order.
Victory in their opening match against the Nigerians, who reached the knockout stages in 2014, will be essential for Croatia’s hopes before they take on group favourites Argentina.
The final group game is against Iceland and the Croatians will be wary of their rivals’ giant-killing abilities after they knocked out England en route to the Euro 2016 last eight followed by an impressive World Cup qualifying campaign.
Croatia have the potential to go far but are also prone to slip-ups which have proved costly so many times in the past.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic, Editing by Ed Osmond)