2018 FIFA World Cup runners-up Croatia travel to the Estadio Do Algarve on Thursday evening to face off against European champions Portugal.

Just under two months after contesting in the final of the World Cup, Croatia will return to action in an international friendly against fellow European heavyweights Portugal at the Estadio Algarve.

Croatia’s fairy-tale run in the summer’s World Cup was brought to a halt at the final hurdle by eventual champions France. Despite the bitter ending, it was a memorable campaign for the Vatreni and manager Zlatko Dalic will be hoping his team can carry on in the same vein of form against Portugal, ahead of their UEFA Nations League encounter against Spain in less than a week.

Portugal’s World Cup campaign was a bit of a letdown though, as they were dumped out of the competition at the Round of 16 stages by Uruguay. And the Seleccao will be keen on making a strong impression in the UEFA Nations League and will want to get into the zone with a victory over Croatia in the friendly before their competitive fixture against Italy on Monday.

Team News & Tactics

Portugal

Captain and all-time leading goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo has been not picked by manager Fernando Santos as has been the norm for friendly games in the recent past. There have been a number of other changes made by the veteran manager from the squad he took to Russia, with the likes of Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Quaresma, Adrien Silva all being left out.

Captain Ronaldo will be unavailable for Portugal (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)

Captain Ronaldo will be unavailable for Portugal (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

Renato Sanches makes a return to the squad, while Wolverhampton Wanderers’ midfielder Ruben Neves has also been called up. Claudio Ramos, Pedro Mendes, Gedson Fernandes and Sergio Oliveira are the four uncapped players in the squad. Santos is expected to set his team up in the 4-4-2 setup that he used during the World Cup.

Rui Patricio should retain his spot between the sticks ahead of the veteran Beto and Ramos after a solid start to his debut Premier League campaign with Wolves. Serie A duo Joao Cancelo and Mario Rui could get the nod for the full-back slots ahead of regulars Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro. The 21-year-old Ruben Dias is likely to start in the heart of the defence, along with with veteran defender Pepe.

William Carvalho should start in the middle of the park to provide the defensive security to his backline, while he is likely to be paired up with Ruben Neves, who has been top-class in the Premier League so far. Manchester City star Bernardo Silva should man the right flank ahead of Gelson Martins, while RB Leipzig speedster Bruma is likely to start on the left side.

Upfront, with no Ronaldo in the ranks, the youthful duo of Andre Silva and Goncalo Guedes are likely to get the nod on Thursday.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Patricio; Cancelo, Pepe, Dias, Rui; B. Silva, Carvalho, Neves, Bruma; Guedes, A. Silva

Croatia

Zlatko Dalic will not be able to call upon World Cup heroes Danijel Subasic and Mario Mandzukic, after the pair announced retirement from international football, along with defender Vedran Corluka. Striker Nikola Kalinic remains out of favour, after being cut from the squad midway through the World Cup.

Dejan Lovren is unavailable, as he recovers from an injury, along with Ivan Strinic, Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic. But the likes of Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric are all in the roster. There have been call-ups for Rangers full-back Borna Barisic along with three uncapped players – Marko Livaja, Karlo Letica and Antonio Milic.

The World Cup finalists are expected to line up in a 4-3-3 setup on Thursday night, with Lovre Kalinic set to replace the retired Subasic between the sticks. Atletico Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko is likely to continue as the right-back, while Barisic should be in line to start on the opposite side after his solid start to the campaign. Domagoj Vida will start alongside Matej Mitrovic in the centre of the backline.

Mandzukic has announced his international retirement (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Mandzukic has announced his international retirement (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Captain, World Cup Golden Ball winner and newly crowned UEFA Player of the Year Luka Modric is unlikely to start, with the upcoming fixture against Spain in mind. Chelsea midfielder Mario Pasalic, on loan at Atalanta, could get the nod having scored two and set up three more in 7 games already this term.

He is likely to be paired up with Barcelona’s mainstay Ivan Rakitic. Marcelo Brozovic is set to take up the defensive duties as the deepest of the three midfielders for the visitors.

With Rebic not in the squad, the spot on the right flank is likely to be taken up by Marko Pjaca, while Ivan Perisic will retain his spot on the left side. Ivan Santini is a strong contender for the centre-forward spot, having netted 7 goals in 6 matches for Anderlecht this term.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Kalinic; Vrsaljko, Mitrovic, Vida, Barisic; Pasalic, Brozovic, Rakitic; Pjaca, Santini, Perisic 

Key Stats

  • Portugal and Croatia have met four times in the past with the Seleccao winning all four of those fixtures.
  • The last time the two sides battled was in the Round of 16 stage of the UEFA Euro 2016, where Portugal edged out Croatia on penalties, on their way to winning the trophy.
  • Croatia have never scored a goal against their opponents on Thursday.
  • Should Luka Modric feature on Thursday, he will become the second-highest capped player for Croatia, along with Stipe Pletikosa with 114 appearances. Only Darijo Srna has more caps for the Vatreni (134).
  • Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t been involved in 18 of Portugal’s last 21 non-competitive fixtures.

Player to watch

Ruben Neves (Portugal)

A star in the making (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)

A star in the making (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)

The 21-year-old has been heralded as a star in the making and is living up to the billing so far, with some exemplary displays in the middle of the park for newly-promoted Premier League outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers. Having played a huge hand in their promotion last season, Neves has carried on from where he left off, scoring and assisting one goal apiece in four matches this term.

Having been left out of  the 23-man squad for the World Cup, Neves will be aiming to make a solid impression upon his return to the national team setup and stake a claim for a permanent spot in Santos’ starting lineup in the future.

Prediction

Portugal 2-1 Croatia

The form that Andre Silva has been in for Sevilla this term should help Portugal cope with the absence of their captain Ronaldo, to some extent. Throw in the likes of Bernardo Silva, Neves and Guedes, they possess enough quality to hurt the Croatian defence, that will be without Lovren and Subasic, who were key in their World Cup campaign.

Add to that, the retirement of Mandzukic, coupled with the injury-enforced absence of Rebic and Kramaric renders Croatia’s attack somewhat inexperienced. It is likely to be an evenly contested affair that could go either way, but we at The Hard Tackle predict a narrow win for the Seleccao, owing to their more well-rounded attack.

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