Niko Kovač could scarcely ask for a bigger occasion to make his bow as Croatia coach – only this week's play-off against Iceland stands between his team and a place in next summer's FIFA World Cup.
Kovač assumed the reins on a temporary basis in mid-October after the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) accepted Igor Štimac's resignation. Croatia ultimately finished nine points off Belgium in qualifying Group A after concluding their campaign with successive defeats by Marc Wilmots's side and Scotland. Captain of his country in his playing days, Kovač is now eyeing a ticket to Brazil.
"I can see a spark in the eyes of my players," said the 42-year-old. "I can see they want to prove to the public that they are better than people think. They want to prove they are top players and a top team who deserve a ticket to Brazil. You will see the true face of the Croatian national team in this first match."
It is a far from ideal scenario for Kovač, who was drafted in by the HNS after impressing with the Under-21s. His first task is a trip to the Icelandic capital on Friday, with injuries threatening his team's chances of progress. "[Ivan] Strinić suffered a thigh muscle injury and will not be in the team," he said. "Ivica Olić has a back injury and trained only in the gym until Wednesday; he feels better but we are not sure if he will play."
A further consideration for Kovač is the threat of suspensions for Tuesday's second leg in Zagreb, with a number of key players a yellow card away from a ban. "[Vedran] Ćorluka, [Luka] Modrić, [Ivan] Rakitić, [Mario] Mandžukić and [Niko] Kranjčar are on that list," said Kovač. "There are more than ever before, but we need to play our best football there so we will not act differently because of those cards."
Following such a limp finish to qualifying and the departure of Štimac – who described stepping down as "the right thing to do" – Kovač has been working predominantly on raising the spirits of his players. "We are trying some different strategies and I am really satisfied with the players," he said. "Believe me, it's not that different physically, more so mentally."
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