Mateo Kovacic was at his best for Croatia in their 4-1 victory over Canada on Sunday, a result which leaves the Vatreni in pole position to qualify from Group F.
Croatia had to come from behind after conceding in just the second minute, but from the moment they equalised, with Kovacic involved in the goal, there only ever looked like being one winner. They were 2-1 up by half-time and sealed an impressive win with two more goals in the second period.
Kovacic, deployed in Croatia’s midfield three as usual, won his 86th cap at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, and he was replaced in the same minute having dominated the midfield battle with a virtuoso all-round display.
Canada had deserved a goal in their opening game against Belgium, but after firing blanks in that one they only had to wait 68 seconds of this contest to find the net. Alphonso Davies headed in an inviting cross from Tajon Buchanan to score his country’s first goal at a World Cup, and the fastest of this tournament.
Midway through the first half Kovacic took matters into his own hands with a trademark dribble from deep. He slipped in Marko Livaja who couldn’t generate enough power with his shot, Croatia’s first of the game. Their second from Andrej Kramaric shortly afterwards found the net but the offside flag denied Croatia an equaliser.
On 34 minutes, Kovacic was again at his creative best, collecting a pass from Luka Modric and releasing Livaja, whose shot was well saved. However, Croatia’s pressure did pay off almost immediately.
Kovacic was again involved, pivoting to create space to play an incisive forward pass to Ivan Perisic, who in turn found Kramaric. The former Leicester forward, now at Hoffenheim, angled his left-footed finish into the bottom corner.
Croatia completed the turnaround a couple of minutes before half-time, Livaja finishing well from the edge of the box as the 2018 runners-up showcased the best of their passing and pressing.
Kovacic had been their best player, completing all 30 passes he played, setting up chances and winning four tackles, more than anyone else on the pitch.
Kramaric had an excellent chance to extend Croatia’s lead 10 minutes into the second half at the end of another flowing move, but his shot was well saved by Milan Borjan in the Canada goal. However, he would get his second goal and Croatia’s third midway through the second period after cutting inside and finishing confidently.
Kovacic initiated another Croatian counter and unselfishly set up a great chance for Marcelo Brozovic, whose shot was saved by the legs of Borjan.
Kovacic was replaced with four minutes left, so watched Lovro Majer’s goal in stoppage time from the bench, with Croatia’s attention now turning towards their final group game against Belgium on Thursday. Avoid defeat in that one and they will be one of the teams in the last 16; better Morocco’s result and they will finish top.