World Cup 2018

From Foxes flop to Lion tamer? Kramarić out for England redemption

 • by Matt Gault
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Leicester City have a few candidates for best Premier League signing over the last decade. N’Golo Kanté is one, Riyad Mahrez is another.

Andrej Kramarić, however, is one piece of business the Foxes would rather forget.

When the striker arrived from FC Rijeka for a then club record fee of £9million in January 2015, Nigel Pearson did everything he could to support his new recruit.

Leicester fans were excited. Then again, with their club rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, they were desperate for any glimmer of hope.

Flopping at the Foxes

Kramarić arrived with a reputation as an accomplished finisher, having scored 28 goals in 24 appearances for club and Croatia that season.

He was viewed as the man to galvanise the wounded Foxes and lift them to Premier League safety. Of course, Pearson’s side did engineer a remarkable turnaround but Kramarić’s involvement was minuscule.

By the time he left one year later, in January 2016, he had amassed only two goals in 15 Premier League appearances. His initial struggles were attributed to the adaptation from Croatian football to the Premier League. The hope was that robust training schedule that summer would prime him for his first full year in England.

However, Kramarić failed to break into Leicester’s side and, with the club chasing their Premier League fairytale during the 2015/16 season, the striker was ushered out the exit door at the King Power Stadium with a minimum of fuss, sent on loan to Hoffenheim.

While Pearson was prepared to wait on Kramarić adjusting to his new surroundings, the coach was sacked and replaced by Claudio Ranieri. Under the bubbly Italian, Kramarić never got a look-in.

It must be said, though, that Kramarić did not suit Ranieri’s fast counter-attacking philosophy, thrillingly demonstrated by Jamie Vardy’s electric pace up top. Kramarić simply could not offer the same dimension, but regardless of tactical technicalities, he is not fondly remembered at Leicester.

Hoffenheim heroics

But make no mistake; a difficult year in England did not derail his career. In the second half of the 2015/16 season, he scored five goals in 15 appearances to save Hoffenheim from the Bundesliga drop by a single point.

Joining on a permanent deal that summer, he went on to find the net 18 times in 36 games the following season, finishing as the club’s top-scorer as Julian Nagelsmann’s side finished fourth.

Kramarić caught the eye with some important contributions, including the winner against Bayern Munich in April which maintained Hoffenheim’s charge towards Champions League qualification while ending Bayern’s 20-game unbeaten streak.

While he wasn’t quite as prolific during the 2017/18 season, with 13 goals in 42 games, Kramarić remained a key figure for Die Kraichgauer and kept his country’s World Cup dream alive with a second-half brace against Ukraine to seal a play-off spot in the qualifying game.

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In Russia, Kramarić has been overshadowed by the brilliance of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, but he remains a weapon in the Croatian attack – and one England need to keep a close eye on. His goal against Russia, a wonderfully improvised header, offered a glimpse of what he’s capable of given the chance inside the penalty area.

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While the 27-year-old has not been guaranteed a starting place in Zlatko Dalić’s side, he scored a crucial equaliser against Russia in the quarter-final which should be enough for him to retain his place behind Mario Mandžukić for Wednesday’s semi-final in Moscow.

Croatia are England’s biggest challenge at the World Cup by a considerable distance. Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden are not as strong as the 1998 semi-finalists and there are not many conclusions that can be drawn from a dead-rubber group game against Belgium’s second-string.

For Gareth Southgate and England, this is the real acid test. There are challenges all over the pitch. The defensive solidity of wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young will be tested by Ivan Perišić and Ante Rebić, while reducing Modrić, the Croatia captain and talisman, to the periphery will be no mean feat.

However, particular attention should also be paid to Kramarić. Leicester fans will recall a player who struggled to get to grips with the English game but underestimating him is a move fraught with peril. He is one of many menacing cogs in this Croatian machine.

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