If you rewound to the night of the World Cup and put a bet on Croatia to win the World Cup, you’d have caused some division. Half would agree, but maybe with a bit of reservation, citing great players and an excellent run through the qualifiers. The other half would laugh, pointing to the fact that Croatia have failed to get out of the group stages since 2002.
Granted, pre-tournament favourites including Germany and Spain crashed out early in the tournament, but the folks who always back Croatia or at least have them as dark horses were the ones laughing as they began firing on all cylinders. Croatia breezed through their group, winning all three games and handing 2014 finalists Argentina a 3-0 hammering on the way. The knockout rounds were less straightforward, with matches against Russia and Denmark decided on penalties, but the final against France remains their only defeat in the tournament.
A myriad of World Class players certainly helped Croatia to get there, but one player in particular will be filling Liverpool fans with confidence ahead of the new season. Fresh from a whirlwind season that ended in an honourable defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champion’s League final, centre back Dejan Lovren went into the tournament in the form of his life, and his stats will certainly have Jurgen Klopp excited as he re-builds his defence around new signing and world-record breaking keeper Alisson.
Before bowing out to the French, Lovren was quick to rub the win over in England in everyone’s faces, proclaiming that he was now ‘one of the best defenders in the world’. Above the mockery however, the statistics point to a rounded performance at the World Cup and a superb partnership with team mate Domagoj Vida. Lovren dealt well with crosses and loose passes, making 32 clearances in the 7 games he played in, as well as picking up 47 loose balls through tackles and interceptions. Contemporaries from a tackling and blocking perspective include Rafael Varane of France and Englishman Harry Maguire, as well as teammate Vida who also had a great tournament. Croatia’s rise to almost-world champions from group stage also-rans may seem surprising, but there’s plenty of evidence to prove that Croatia’s great run, along with other over-achievers, could actually have been predicted.
The good news for Liverpool fans is the fact that Jurgen Klopp now has selection problems to contend with, instead of the cobbled together defence that has let him down over the last 2 seasons. Lovren’s great World Cup wasn’t a total surprise, and the recklessness and inconsistency that have plagued his gameplay are slowly being improved as the 29-year-old begins to reach his full potential. Lovren may face stiff competition from world-record breaker Virgil van Dijk, but the likelihood is that he’ll end up playing alongside the Dutchman, rather than competing directly.
With exciting new signing Naby Keita offering blistering pace in midfield and new signing Fabinho from Monaco offering more defensive capabilities in the middle of the pitch, Lovren will be playing in a setup closer to Croatia’s, where Modric and Kovacic offer plenty of shielding. With the big man thriving at this years’ tournament, hopefully he can maintain his self-endowed ‘best defender in the world’ title throughout the year. Or at least until he gets sick of Mo Salah making fun of him.