The striker netted two excellent goals in their 4-1 win over Canada yesterday.
DOHA: Croatia leaned heavily on striker Andrej Kramaric as they ended Canada’s chances of progressing with a 4-1 win in an enigmatic performance, and a showdown with a similarly stuttering Belgium now awaits with a place in the last 16 at stake.
Needing a draw to progress, Croatian fans will be wondering which side is going to turn up against the Belgians – the sloppy one of the first half hour at the Khalifa Stadium on Sunday, or the one that scored four goals over the last 60 minutes.
Kramaric netted two excellent strikes and had another ruled out for offside as his side finally showed some semblance of their superb technical quality against a game yet limited Canada, but many in the Croatian side still underperformed.
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The whole defence was at fault in the opening minutes, caught flat-footed and left in the role of bystanders as Alphonso Davies netted Canada’s first goal at a men’s World Cup with a booming header.
Even that was not enough to spur Croatia into action, and much of the first half-hour was a repeat of their turgid 0-0 draw with Morocco, blighted by misplaced passes and breakdowns in communication.
The Croatians seemed to have no-one who could match the power and aggression of the fired-up Canadians, but Kramaric finally shook them from their slumber on the half-hour mark.
He thought he had pulled his side level with a cool finish that seemed to come out of nowhere, but that effort was ruled out for offside.
Jolted to life
That seemed to jolt the Croatians to life, and for the first time in Qatar they started playing with the kind of purpose that got them to the World Cup final four years ago.
Inevitably it was Kramaric who got the equaliser, and suddenly, the air went out of the Canadian bubble.
Gaps started to appear, and there is nothing the Croatians like more than weaving through space with short passes and quick, intelligent dribbling.
With the clock ticking up towards halftime, Josip Juranovic played a one-two as he set off infield, poking the ball between the legs of a defender for Marko Livaja to control before rifling it into the net.
With the rest of his team either unable or unwilling to match his work rate at times, Kramaric put the game beyond doubt by grabbing himself a second with a wonderful first touch before firing home in the 70th minute.
Shortly afterwards the 31-year-old striker was substituted, with the job done and Belgium still to come. He may have had to sacrifice his opportunity to score a hattrick, but the prize of progression to the last 16 is so much greater.
The bright spot for Croatia is that they scored four goals from their 10 attempts on target. More troubling is that playmaker Luka Modric once again struggled to impose himself on the game, flitting in and out, but invisible for long periods.
Ivan Perisic had a similar game, assisting for both of Kramaric’s goals but otherwise inconsistent in a game against the kind of opposition that he regularly dominates.
Still, the Croatians top the group on four points, ahead of Morocco on goal difference and one point ahead of the lacklustre Belgians, and a draw will see them through.
However poor they have been in their first two games, Belgium will be a lot more dangerous than either Morocco or Canada, and they will almost certainly punish Croatia for any lack of concentration.
Like Kramaric, it is not in the Croatians nature to play conservatively, but it might yet provide their best chance of getting into the last 16.