UEFA.com's Elvir Islamović assesses Croatia's time at the FIFA World Cup, which ended on Monday, and looks ahead to their UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying task.
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Were expectations met?
People in Croatia always expect a lot from their national team and it was no different this time, with Niko Kovač's charges predicted by many to advance with hosts Brazil. Yet in the crucial match, Mexico were superior and Croatia's dream died. The official goal is always to reach the FIFA World Cup and to leave a good impression once you are there, but with stars like Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić, Croatia could do much better.
What the media say
24sata: Adios Croatia. Mexico destroyed dreams of reaching the knockout phase. Mexico were much better and deserved to win. We hoped to see Croatia in the knockout phase after 16 years but it wasn't to be.
Sportske novosti: The key players disappointed. Croatia's 'fantasistas' were without fantasy, and Luka Modrić made a lot of mistakes. When Modrić does not play, Croatia do not play. We are eliminated from the group stage as we were at the World Cups in 2002 and 2006. It's a real shame.
What they say
Luka Modrić: "We are all disappointed. We expected to go through, we had the quality for that. We need to take time out now and see what we were doing wrong. We need to learn our lessons and see what the future holds."
Niko Kovač: "My team played a good tournament. We were a refreshing team, playing nice football. We had a tough group and we could have created a shock but life goes on. Now we will analyse what was missing in Brazil and try to fix that in EURO qualifying. We have a quality team and will continue to work hard."
Croatia have plenty of young talent coming through and there is nothing to fear in terms of a drop in quality. Mateo Kovačić, Marcelo Brozović, Ante Rebić and Šime Vrsaljko are all in their early 20s. Modrić, Mandžukić and Rakitić also have a few more years in them at the top level so Croatia should be there or thereabouts for a while yet, certainly through the European Qualifiers and UEFA EURO 2016.
Room for improvement
Kovač, 42, is still very inexperienced as a coach and learning all the time – he had not lost an international game until the 3-1 opening-day loss to Brazil (ten matches as U21 and A team boss). European qualifying will give him room to grow, to really stamp his impression on the squad, with many envisaging a return to the attacking team of old. He will have to find a solution to the left flank, a constant thorn in Croatia's side.
It is no secret that Croatia have several excellent prospects emerging and many earned tournament experience in Brazil. FC Internazionale midfielder Kovačić is 20 and it may not be long before he is one of the first names on the team sheet. Defender Vrsaljko (22) slightly surprisingly impressed on the left, while forward Rebić (20) was a bullish presence before his late red card against Mexico. Midfielder Brozović (21) also has great promise.
This squad should be even stronger in two years' time and they should have no real problems negotiating Group H. Norway and Bulgaria will not be taken lightly, but Kovač's men will most likely battle with Italy for top spot – their first meeting comes on 16 November. Although it did not end well in Brazil, Croatia did show glimpses of power and strength – not least in the 4-0 win against Cameroon – and if key players rediscover their form, fans can be optimistic of a trip to France for UEFA EURO 2016.