Having beaten their neighbours to World Cup qualification late last year, Croatia reconvene with neighbours Slovenia for an international friendly on Saturday afternoon.
The former Group H rivals meet in Al Rayyan, Qatar, as preparations continue for the global gathering at the end of this year.
After winning only two out of eight games during 2020 – the worst annual result in the nation’s short history – and exiting Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage, the current Croatia squad needed to improve rapidly in order to seal a place at Qatar 2022.
To be held four years after their remarkable run to the World Cup Final, reaching the upcoming tournament automatically was the focus for Zlatko Dalic’s side, who lost their opening qualifier 1-0 to this week’s opponents Slovenia.
Despite his role in leading the Kockasti to within touching distance of the ultimate prize, Dalic and his experienced crop road out a storm of severe criticism, with the introduction of several younger debutants yielding much improved results.
Croatia ultimately finished the rest of their Group H campaign unbeaten, dropping points only by drawing 0–0 in Russia and 2–2 with Slovakia at home – finishing as group winners after defeating the Russians in Split.
September’s comprehensive 3-0 win over the Slovenians was another highlight of the process, as Dalic became the country’s first coach to qualify for three major tournaments.
Now, the slow build-up to the winter finals begins, as Croatia play successive friendlies in Al Rayyan – with the second to come against Bulgaria next week.
When Slovenia started the road to Qatar with that eye-catching victory over the Croatians – thanks to Sandi Lovric’s early goal in Ljubljana – they retained high hopes of securing the nation’s third appearance at a World Cup finals.
However, their campaign soon petered out, with such a morale-boosting result being followed by narrow defeats to both Russia and Cyprus.
While the inconsistency of other teams left them in contention for a playoff spot heading into the autumn of last year, Matjaz Kek’s side could ultimately post only four wins from 10 fixtures to finish eight points adrift of second place.
Three of their four defeats came by one-goal margins, though, which indicates that events could have unfolded quite differently. However, a 2-1 home win over Cyprus in their final outing last November proved no more than a consolation.
Therefore, friendlies with Croatia and Qatar in the coming days form part of Kek’s preparations for next season’s Nations League, in which Slovenia have been drawn in League B Group 4, alongside Serbia, Norway and Sweden.
Croatia form (all competitions):
Slovenia form (all competitions):
We say: Croatia 2-1 Slovenia
Following a shock reverse early on in qualifying for Qatar, it was Croatia who came out comfortably on top the last time these two nations met, and just a few months down the track, the same outcome is likely again.
While experimentation with substitutes is sure to dilute the second half, it could be a competitive duel between the two European neighbours, who boast a number of technically-gifted players.