On Sunday evening, Croatia took on Austria in the last group match of their UEFA Nations League campaign in the Ernst-Happel-Stadion of Vienna. They came away with a 3-1 victory, which sealed their place in the Final Four tournament of the competition.
Bad Early History in Nations League
It was the first time that Croatia managed to win its group in the UEFA Nations League, which is in its third season of existence. In the new tournament’s first edition, Croatia finished bottom of its section, but UEFA saved them from relegation to League B by expanding the top league from 12 to 16 teams.
Last time, Coach Zlatko Dalić’s team fared a little better by narrowly escaping relegation. That time, the other result"s help on the group"s last day went their way. Recently, European football’s governing body raised the profile of the competition, making each team’s seeding ahead of the UEFA EURO 2024 qualifying draw dependent upon its performance in the Nations League.
This move forced Dalić, previously a fervent critic of the competition, to take it more seriously. Understandably, a coach with many players who play at the top level is concerned about continuously adding matches and new tournaments to the international calendar. At the same time, The UEFA Nations League provides the shortest and easiest route for a country like Croatia to win an international title.
Changes in Lineup
Going into Sunday’s match, Dalić made five changes from the team that started Thursday night’s 2-1 victory over Denmark. Of the back four, only Joško Gvardiol kept his place. Josip Stanišić, Dejan Lovren, and Borna Barišić all came into the defense. Nikola Vlašić replaced Mario Pašalić on the right- wing, while Ante Budimir started for Andrej Kramarić up front.
Had the game just been about securing a place in the Final Four, there would not have been so many changes. But with the FIFA World Cup just two months away, there was also a need to test certain players.
Things seemed to get off to an ideal start for Croatia when Luka Modrić gave his team the lead in the 6th minute of play. That was far from the case, however. Instead, Christoph Baumgartner equalized three minutes later. To make things worse, Marcelo Brozović had to be replaced due to an injury in the 18th minute. Lovro Majer came on. This disrupted the visitors’ play completely. It forced Mateo Kovačić to play the defensive holding role in the midfield that the injured Brozović had left behind, as Majer was a more offensive-minded option. As a result, the Austrians became the dominant side of the match.
Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković came up huge several times to keep the score level. Substitute striker Marko Livaja broke the deadlock instead, scoring in the 69th minute. Lovren added a third just three minutes later.
In the end, Croatia had opportunities to score more goals, but 3-1 was more than enough to win the match, getting revenge for the embarrassing 3-0 loss at home to the Austrians in June to open the group. More importantly, it was enough to win that section and advance to the Final Four while gaining confidence ahead of the World Cup.
Meanwhile, Austria could not avoid the drop to League B, as Croatia, Denmark, and France all finished above them. They did not qualify for the Qatar World Cup, which gives Coach Ralf Rangnick time to rebuild ahead of EURO 2024 qualifying.
The Netherlands, Spain, and Italy also booked their place in the Final Four. The mini-tournament will take place in June 2023.
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