World Cup Round of 16: Perfect Croatia know it's no time to be rotten against Denmark
The fourth Round-of-16 fixture takes place at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Over 44,000 will attend as Croatia battle it out with Denmark for a place in the quarterfinals. The winner will face either Spain or Russia.
Croatia, along with Uruguay and Belgium, are among the three teams to have won every game in their World Cup to date. The Blazers kicked things off with a 2-0 victory over Nigeria before decimating Argentina 3-0. They did another job in the final game with the second-stringers bettering Iceland. Croatia has performed above expectations. They are into the World Cup knockout stages for the first time since the Golden Generation finished third in 1998, the fledgling nation's debut tournament.
Denmark has overcome a difficult group to progress through the knockout stages. Their only victory came in the opener against Peru. A 1-1 draw followed against Australia, then a boring 0-0 affair against France in which neither side cared to risk injury for the sake of spectacle. The Danish Dynamite didn't light up the tournament like some but also managed not to implode in their own end.
The two sides have met five times. Each has two wins. The last competitive meeting between the pair saw Croatia beat Denmark 3-0 in the Euro 96 group stage. The stakes are even higher this time.
Group D Winners
Croatia came into the tournament as a dark horse. Qualifying from the group would have met expectations. To everyone's surprise, the Blazers are unbeaten. Croatia has scored seven and conceded just a single goal, from a penalty. They now face a comparatively easy opponent as reward for topping Group D.
Zlatko Dalic has preferred a 4-2-3-1 in this tournament, with Luka Modric in the hole and Ivan Rakitic paired alongside either Marcelo Brozovic or Milan Badelj. The midfield runs the show and rightly so. Modric is their talisman. He has led by example and been well partnered with El Clasico rival Rakitic.
Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren have also hit the ground running. Mario Mandzukic has disappointed in the group stages, missing sitters. A striker of his quality must step up and put in better performances. Don't be surprised if he does.
Croatia have no injury concerns, although Sime Vrsaljko, Ivan Rakitic, Ante Rebic and Mario Mandzukic are all on yellow cards. Another in this match will rule them out if the team advances. The team should be well rested, too. Only Perisic and Modric were used in the final game against Iceland.
Group C Runners-up
Denmark has scored only two goals but are still unbeaten. Like Croatia, the Danes have only conceded one goal, that too from the penalty spot. Their impotence in attack makes them underdogs in this match, however.
Kasper Schmeichel has made the second most saves at the World Cup and kept six clean sheets in his last seven appearances. The defence stands strong. Simon Kjaer and Andreas Christensen are a formidable centre-half pairing. Midfielder William Kvist has returned to training. He is likely to return for this one.
Denmark's hopes rely massively on Christian Eriksen. The Spurs playmaker has been directly involved in both goals. Forward Yussuf Poulsen has served his one-match suspension. Eriksen will be happy to have him back. Pione Sisto is likely to start on the other wing. Either Andreas Cornelius or Nicolai Jorgensen will be the striker. Sisto and Thomas Delaney are the ones carrying yellow cards.
The Danes rely heavily on their defence, setting up in a 4-3-3 with Eriksen as the most advanced midfielder. They were deadly on the counterattack against Peru and must replicate that kind of performance to get a result against the Croats.
This will be one of the more tightly contested games. Both teams' strength is in midfield and that is where the game will be won by Croatia. The trio of Modric, Rakitic and Badelj/Brozovic will prove to be too strong for Denmark. Plus, they have more quality in other areas of the pitch and have clicked together very well as a team. I'm going for a narrow 2-1 win for Croatia.