World Cup 2018

Croatia v Denmark: Modrić and Eriksen in battle of midfield maestros

 • by Matt Gault
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It’s all getting a bit serious now. Having emerged from the group stages unscathed, Croatia and Denmark meet in Nizhny Novgorod with a place in the World Cup quarter-final up for grabs.

Croatia have not put a foot wrong in Russia, taking maximum points from Group A after beating Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland in impressive fashion.

Denmark, meanwhile, quietly squeezed their way out of Group C thanks to an instantly-forgettable 0-0 draw with France to progress in second place behind Les Bleus on five points.

The Scandinavians’ reward is a daunting date with Croatia’s oft-mooted ‘Golden Generation,’ who are threatening to live up to the hype.

How they got on in the groups

Progression from Group D was far from a foregone conclusion for Croatia.

Argentina were firm favourites to top the group heading into the tournament while Iceland had finished above the Croats in qualifying.

But Zlatko Dalić has succeeded where Niko Kovač failed four years ago.

Croatia managed only three points from three games in Brazil but have breezed through their group assignments with aplomb this summer, beating Nigeria 2-0 before crushing Argentina and edging out Iceland to comfortably secure top spot.

Their performances have been as impressive as any of the pre-tournament favourites, too. Nigeria barely lay a glove on them in Kaliningrad before Luka Modrić and co. comprehensively outplayed Argentina to hand the South Americans one of their darkest World Cup memories.

Iceland were predictably plucky but Ivan Perisić’s 90th-minute strike ensured Croatia were one of only two teams to advance with a 100 per cent record.

Denmark’s progression wasn’t quite as accomplished. Åge Hareide’s side edged Peru in their opener but were unable to see off Australia despite a wonderful Christian Eriksen goal. A scoreless draw with France in Moscow was enough to see the Danes into the last-16 for the first time since 2002.

The match-ups

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Croatia have looked balanced, controlled and effective in a 4-2-3-1 which has pushed Modrić into a more advanced role and paired the magnificent Ivan Rakitić with Marcelo Brozović. Everton transfer target Ante Rebić and Perisić – a Manchester United transfer target last summer – have impressed on the flanks with Mario Mandzukić deployed in the lone frontman role.

Denmark haven’t been the most thrilling side to watch in Russia, but there have been elements to their 4-3-3 that have worked. Eriksen has been involved throughout while Martin Braithwaite looked bright on the right flank against France.

Denmark have struggled in attack, scoring just twice, but have been organised at the back and have yet to concede from open play. They have also dominated aerial battle having won 153 duels to top that category.

Statistically, Croatia have the edge. They’ve scored seven goals, for a start, but with 648 touches and 369 accurate passes per 90, they’ve tended to assert their dominance more effectively than Denmark.

Croatia have been one of the most clinical teams in Russia, with their goals to post-shot xG ratio of 2.66 the second-best in the tournament. With 2.53, however, Denmark have also been efficient in that category.

Verdict

Buoyed by a trio of convincing victories, Croatia will view a last-16 encounter with Denmark as very winnable.

There is a growing sense this group of Croatia players can emulate the great side of 1998, who finished third in France, especially if Modrić and Rakitić continue in the same rich vein of form they displayed in the group stages.

However, should they catch Eriksen on one of his good days, Denmark stand a fair chance of upsetting the odds and reaching the last eight for just the second time in their history (like Croatia, the Danes’ best finish also came in 1998).

The only previous meeting between these two nations at a major tournament came at Euro 1996 and ended in a comfortable 3-0 win for Croatia. Don’t expect such a one-sided scoreline in this encounter but, if we were put on the spot, we’d back another Croatian triumph.

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