Croatia may have been just seconds away from the semi-finals at Euro 2008, but their chances of emulating that success this summer look remote.
Croatia face tough group stage opposition in holders and world champions Spain, Italy and a newly resolute Republic of Ireland, but they can take comfort from the way they impressively topped a tough group four years ago when they beat co-hosts Austria in Vienna, Poland and eventual runners-up Germany.
In the quarter-finals they took the lead against Turkey in the final minute of extra-time, only to concede an equalizer with the last kick of the game and then lose the penalty shootout.
Their confidence dented, Croatia failed to reach the 2010 World Cup and endured a patchy Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, before gaining revenge against Turkey in a playoff. They finished second behind Greece in their group, before producing their best performance of the campaign in a 3-0 win in Turkey in the playoff first leg, before confirming their passage with a goalless draw in Zagreb.
Many of the Euro 2008 squad remain and form the backbone of the current team in which goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, defenders Josip Simunic and Darijo Srna, midfielders Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric and are regulars in coach Slaven Bilic’s preferred 4-4-2 formation.
Especially influential are 30-year-old captain Srna and playmaker Modric, who flourished at Tottenham Hotspur for most of this season until he and his team faltered in the closing stages of the campaign.
Like most Balkan teams, Croatia have plenty of natural talent. What separates them from their regional rivals, though, is their ability to play well under pressure. Since gaining independence in 1992, Croatia have qualified for seven of nine major tournaments and they stunned the world when they reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup in France.
Bilic was one of that team, which included Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker, all of whom enjoyed impressive careers and won the UEFA Champions League.
The present generation is led by Srna, Modric and Brazilian-born striker Eduardo da Silva, who has made a successful return after a career-threatening injury.
They possess some of that 1998 talent and guile, but may lack adequate replacements for ageing key players. This could be a weakness for the squad.
Bilic’s team may struggle to match Spain and Italy for pace and crisp one-touch passing, so they have to go all out for the win against Ireland in their opener in Poznan on Sunday.
Weaknesses exposed in the qualifiers were made more obvious in February’s 3-1 home defeat by Sweden, when AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic exploited a flat defense with deadly ease.
Croatia’s buildup play is usually crafty, but against top-level opposition it can be slow and predictable, another weakness they must overcome.
However, when it comes to spirit and determination, they are and always have been a match for anyone in the world, so if they do fail to make it, they will at least go down fighting.