Two strikes from Jo Inge Berget ensured that Norway took the second position in Group H with two games remaining. Croatia, for all their momentum, have been left undone by their last two fixtures, leaving them outside the automatic qualification from EURO 2016
Norway pulled off a surprise victory in front of their home supporters, as an early goal from Berget, as well as an own goal from Vedran Corluka ensured that the Scandinavians cement the second spot in Group H. Niko Kovac was less than impressed by his Croatian side, citing a total lack of motivation as the primary cause of their capitulation, leaving them hanging in third place.
The game brought to light the differences in commitment between both sides, with Norway looking for the win from the first whistle. Here are three things that became glaringly evident from the tie in Oslo
Norway can dare to dream
Like Denmark, Sweden and surprisingly Iceland, Norway’s victory symbolises a return to prominence of football in the far north. Not renowned for their footballing expertise, Scandinavian nations have been bogged down by a lack of real talent and only a fleeting semblance of footballing pedigree within their ranks. Most nations have a token talisman, around whom the team is built. Sweden have Ibrahimovic, Iceland have Sigurdsson. Lacking that one internationally recognised player, has ironically helped Norway. Having failed to qualify for an international tournament in the last 17 years, Norway are now on the brink of breaking that duck.
The Nordic side have ridden on good teamwork and vicious counter-attacks to best their opposition in the qualifiers thus far.
Though their victories have often been scrappy, the Croatian scalp proves just how badly they want to qualify. The defence discharged their duties diligently, while the attack was unrelenting.
With two games yet to play, Norway look better placed than they were before. However, the final game against Italy could prove decisive, and Norway will be banking on the Azzuri taking it easy as they already have qualification sealed.
Mario Mandzukic continues his woeful form
The former Atletico hit man has failed to find the back of the net, since early March, going 5 games without scoring. In his place, Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and even the 32-year-old Ivica Olic have consistently come up with the goods while Mandzukic continues his barren spell in front of goal.
His movement against Norway was tepid at best, as he failed to find himself in positions of promise. His self-imposed isolation at the top harms his side, as it puts more pressure on the likes of Pjaca and Perisic to create chances.
Perisic could well be used as a lone striker, but given Croatia’s lack of fit and able wingers, Kovac is likely to persist with Mandzukic up front. While the urgency of Croatia’s campaign may not be completely lost on the team, experienced stars, especially Mandzukic need to fire when it matters most.
Kovac needs a new strategy
Niko Kovac was hardly pleased with his side’s performance in Norway, as they succumbed to a 2-0 loss. Adding to their embarrassing 0-0 draw to Azerbaijan, the defeat at Oslo highlighted more than one shortcoming in Croatia’s game.
Kovac has pinned the blame for Croatia’s collapse firmly on his players, claiming that they have not displayed enough commitment to the cause. He further went on to say that every single player would have to prove themselves. The former Leverkusen midfielder credit Norway, and said that Norway fully deserved to win, due to their ability to show more desire and heart to overcome every obstacle.
The decision to field Brozovic in front of the clasico pairing of Modric and Rakitic left many scratching their heads. At the end of 90 minutes, it was evident as to why. Croatia’s midfield looked confused, and imbalanced, failing to muster any meaningful play while in possession, or on the counter.
With their last two fixtures ending in disappointment, no fixture will be considered ‘easy’ for the Croats, and it for this reason, that Kovac needs to renew his strategy. While Alen Halilovic is short on any first team experience, his natural disposition to attack from wide areas may be just the risk that Kovac needs to take.
The next two games might prove vital for not just Croatia’s qualification hopes, but also for Kovac’s future, which at present is in serious doubt.