THE Scotland management know the dangers and there are plenty of them.
But they say they can’t fret unduly.
They might not but the punters will and whoever is selected to start in defence will probably have more than a few pre-match jitters as well. Croatia may be a team that excels as the sum of its parts but some of those parts are impressive, especially at the business end of the park.
“They have four strikers and can perm any two from the four – Ivica Olic, Mario Mandzukic, Eduardo and, even, Nikica Jelavic,” said Scotland assistant manager Mark McGhee. “We’d take any of them but we can’t worry about them too much. It’s a big, big challenge for whoever we have playing at the back but we will go there and see how we can cope.”
Simply coping would be viewed as a massive achievement, given the quality of that goal-scoring artillery. Their fourth choice – Jelavic, pictured right – is a player who romped through life in the SPL, while one of their main men – Mandzukic – became the first Croatian to score in a Champions League final when he netted the first of Bayern Munich’s goals in last weekend’s victory over Borussia Dortmund.
As a young lad, he and his family were forced by the Balkan conflict to up sticks and flee to Germany. Eventually they moved back but no matter how unsettling that episode of his life was there has always been one place Mandzukic has felt completely at home.
Regardless the venue, the level of competition or the quality of the opposition, out on a football pitch, the Croatian striker is comfortable. A place to escape, a place for fun, a place of work, the final third of the pitch is his manor.
He illustrated that yet again last weekend in the biggest match of the season in European club football, he proves it every time he turns out for Bayern Munich and he has reinforced that belief throughout the current World Cup qualifying campaign, building on the personal success of last summer’s European Championships
That tournament was Mandzukic’s big breakthrough on the international stage. It wasn’t just his three goals in the group stages, it was the performances against the eventual finalists, Italy and Spain, that heralded his arrival amongst the elite strikers. Despite failing to emerge from the group, the Croatian front man still finished fourth on the scoring charts and that was enough to alert Bayern to his potential.
An aerial powerhouse, even against the tallest defenders, it was his excellent timing and ability to harness his stature in a way that causes optimal disarray in the opposition defence and allows him to hold the ball up and bring team-mates into play with headers and flicks that appealed most to Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes, who has seen Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben benefit from the Croat’s strengths.
Full of running, with great stamina, Mandzukic averages more than 10km every game and with that work ethic and skill at shielding the ball, few defenders revel in tussles with the striker.
When he was exiled in Germany as a six-year-old, he had joined lower-league minnows TSF Ditzingen and although he and his family returned to Slavonski Brod four years later and he made his senior debut for local side NK Marsonia, even before mighty Bayern came calling, Mandzukic’s career had already taken him back to the country which has previously accepted him as a refugee.
Wolfsburg had their head turned first. After Marsonia, he had honed his craft with NK Zagreb before he made the switch to city rivals Dinamo. There he contributed 42 goals and 29 assists in 81 games during his three-year stint, helping them to the domestic double in his first two campaigns (2007-8 and 2008-9) and then a third consecutive league title before he headed back to Germany.
It was his performances on international duty last summer that convinced Bayern that his talents translated to the highest levels.
It isn’t just the goals. It’s the selfless play, the work ethic, the awareness. Heynckes admits that he denied Mandzukic the chance to compete for the title of top scorer in the Bundesliga due to the way he chose to rotate the squad as they battled on so many fronts but says the 27-year-old Croat never threw any tantrums.
Initially considered back-up for Mario Gomez, he stepped in when the first-choice striker suffered an ankle injury, rattling in nine goals in 11 matches.
Last weekend he was overshadowed in the build-up to the Champions League final by young pretender Robert Lewandowski but it was the Croat, not the Pole, who ended the night with a goal and a winners medal.
The Scotland management know that when it comes to the ball, he is rarely that careless.
“Olic and Mandzukic work well but I’m not sure how they are placed in terms of call-offs,” said McGhee. “I’m not sure that will be the combination they go for.
“They might want to play Jelavic against us. But the fact this game is still live for them adds to it all. They will not experiment. They will pick a team they feel is best to beat us. They want to win this group.”