World Cup Preview: France v Croatia

Who? France - Croatia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? July 15, 17:00 (CET local time)

France (Omri Tancman)

During the round of 16 match between France and Argentina, Benjamin Pavard made a small history. He was the first French defender in 20 years to score a goal in an official match. The last one was Lilian Thuram. Interestingly, the game in which Thuram scored was at the semi-final of 1998 World Cup in France. The rival was no other than Croatia, their rival in this final.

The comparison to Thuram and the resemblance to him was something referred to by Pavard himself as well. In a recent interview, he stated the fact that like Thuram he is also playing for his club as a central defender while in the national team he deploys as a right back. When asked about his future, he admitted that he would love to have the same career as Thuram made and he serves as an inspiration for him.

Thuram himself was full of compliments towards the young prodigy. Pavard played with Thuram’s son in the U-19 Euro 2015 for France, and already then he showed his great football intelligence, according to Thuram. After the match against Argentina, Thuram was even more impressed. It was not only by Pavard's goal but also by the fact that he was impressive as a starter, even though he was just a sub before the tournament, like Thuram in Euro 1996.

Thuram’s goal against Croatia is one of his greatest moments without any doubt, but what gave Thuram a long successful career was his consistent premium ability on defense. If Pavard wishes to be the next Thuram, like many expect of him, he can start by stopping Croatian star winger Perisic, even if he will not score against Croatia, like Thuram.

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

It’s not a dream, it’s a reality. Croatia are in the World Cup final for the first time! After dominating the group stage with 3 wins out of 3, the Croatians completed another triple in the knockout stages: Every game went to extra time, and after two penalty shootout victories, England have succumbed to a Mario Mandžukić goal that completed history.

It was yet another heroic performance by a side that is constantly overlooked by other teams and foreign media, but the truth is that Croatia’s achievements are remarkable since they gained independence and they should be considered a part of world football’s elite nations, regardless of Sunday’s score. Since the beginning of the 2018 World Cup, and especially after the thrashing of Argentina, the feeling was that 1998 is happening all over again. The Vatreni finished 3rd that summer, and now they face the same French team who broke their hearts – as Lilian Thuram scored a rare brace for the hosts to cancel Davor Šuker’s opener that night in the Stade de France. Back to 2018, Croatia already overcame the host obstacle after eliminating Russia, and they will want to come full circle by conquering their French demons as well.

This task would be more difficult than ever. Despite showing incredible strength and resilience, it is inevitable that fatigue is going to play a factor in the final. Facing an athletic French team with one of the youngest squads in this tournament, who also enjoy an extra day of rest, can be too much to handle for the Croatians who are the first team in World Cup history to play three extra times in a row. However, in common Eastern European fashion, you can count on Croatia to give it all – as they surely can recognize the importance and rarity of the moment. After all, they have almost failed to qualify to the World Cup due to a tumultuous campaign that was full of internal disputes and poor football, and only the appointment of coach Zlatko Dalić sparked a crucial last gasp victory in Ukraine to reach the playoffs. Surely, no one would have thought the relatively unknown Dalić, who spent the previous 7 years in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, could take this side so far. Perhaps France are favorites, according to most experts, but this just might be Croatia’s moment. Zagreb is waiting to burst into celebrations.

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World Cup Preview: Croatia v England

Who? Croatia - England
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? July 11, 20:00 (CET local time)

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

Following the quarter final victory over Russia in penalties, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić has tweeted a short yet simple message: “Small Nation, Big Dreams”. As one of the smallest and youngest nations around in this World Cup, it is quite amazing to see the pride and hunger of the squad on one hand, and the buzz and support from the Croatian nation on the other hand. Even President Kolinda Grabar -Kitarović has joined the party and was seen dancing in front of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev after Domagoj Vida’s go-ahead goal in extra time.

Speaking of the Croatian defender, he has created a massive political controversy after he was being recorded saying “Glory to Ukraine” in a post-game video, along with assistant coach and former international Ognjen Vukojević. Both have played in the past for Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv and used this phrase that became popular in 2014 after conflict broke out with Russia. Just like Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri earlier in the tournament, Vida was fined for political provocation. Vukojević, however, was relieved from his duties following the incident. This is the second time a member of the Vatreni is sent home this summer, as striker Nikola Kalinić left the squad following his refusal to enter as a substitute vs Nigeria. Considering Croatia look fatigued after 2 grueling matches, Kalinić might be regretting his actions.

On Wednesday, Croatia face England in the Semi Finals. These two sides haven’t been in this stage for a long time, but both hold some good and bad memories from one another: In the Euro 2008 qualifications, Croatia beat England twice: 2-0 in Zagreb, and an iconic 3-2 win in Wembley – a result that left England out of the Euro’s. However, the Three Lions responded in the 2010 World Cup qualifications by thumping Croatia 4-1 and 5-1, thus denying the Balkan’s the chance to go to South Africa. For tonight’s matchup, two players who can be crucial for Croatia’s success are Luka Modrić and Vedran Ćorluka, who played together for English side Tottenham Hotspur – and know well some of their former Spurs counterparts that play today for England, such as Harry Kane, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.

The Croatians arrive in Moscow for the first time this tournament and would want to stay in town until at least Sunday night – as they look to make their biggest dream yet come true.

England (Yossi Medina)

In the last weeks, you just can't ignore the pride of the English people. The chants of Football's Coming Home can be heard everywhere and the confidence in the ability of this team to make history is high. Nobody missed the chance to congratulate the team. After the win against Colombia in the round of 16, one message was not really welcomed by the fans.

UKIP is not one of the biggest parties in the British politics, but it's definitely well known in the country. One of their main objectives is to change the immigration policy in the UK. Instead of being based on political decisions such as membership in the European Union, UKIP wants to change the process in order to ensure that only skilled people could immigrate to the country.

Their celebrations with England's success made a huge controversy. The Migration Museum of London decided to reply them with a poster. The poster described how England's lineup would look without immigrant or their descendants. Out of the 11 lineup players of England against Colombia, only four left as "native" English. Surprisingly, you couldn't find the scorer of the decisive penalty from that match, Eric Dier, who grew up in Portugal, and the leading scorer, Harry Kane, that his father is Irish.

Even in such a conservative football nation as England, immigrants became an integral part of the team. At the last match, another interesting player scored. Dele Ali was born in Milton Keynes, but his father is Nigerian and he even lived in the country for two years.

This combination is one of the important things that leads England to their current position. It's more than the usual story of players who are playing for the same flag. It's a mixture of cultures and races in one team. Even though they all sing loud and proud for their queen before any match, each one of them have its own story in their journey to make history.

Since 1966, England never played in a major tournament final. They lost three time since then – against Yugoslavia in Euro 1968, against Italy in 1990 World Cup and the last time was in Euro 1996 against Germany. The last person who felt the misery of missing a final was the current manager, Gareth Southgate, who missed the last penalty against Germany. A manager who is part from history of English disappointments and players that arrived to the country as part from its historic successes, all know that they have one mission tonight: reaching the final.

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World Cup Preview: Russia v Croatia

Who? Russia - Croatia
Where? Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
When? July 6, 20:00 (CET local time)


One of the biggest fears in Croatia, following the impressive group stage domination, was another round of 16 mental collapse that comes as a result of some big expectations – similar to what happened in Euro 2016: Portugal, the eventual winners, came as underdogs vs Croatia and eliminated them.

 That scenario was very close to repeat itself, as Denmark put everything on the line and pulled the Croatians all the way to the penalties. At the 115th minute, Luka Modrić sent an amazing ball to Ante Rebić, who found himself facing and empty net – but was fouled at the last moment before scoring. Modrić missed the penalty, the game went to penalty kicks to decide the winner, and the momentum suddenly felt Danish. For many, this reminded the Uruguay – Ghana quarter finals from 2010, when Luis Suarez’s handball and Gyan Asamoah’s missed penalty broke the Ghanaian’s mentally. Moreover, The Croatian’s had a Deja-vu from the Euro 2008 quarter finals, as they scored a 119th minute goal vs Turkey, only to concede an equalizer a minute later and then losing in penalties.

This time, it wasn’t that case – Croatia won in penalties. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and even Modrić scored his penalty from the shootout. The game in Nizhny Novogrod proved, more than anything, that the Croatians have great character. Now they face hosts Russia in the quarter finals and feel there is a chance to continue dreaming. As memories of the 1998 World Cup continue, it’s time to remind the Vatreni that they were eliminated in that tournament by the hosts France in the semifinals, so perhaps its time to look at 2018 as a chance to make new and better history.


The other half of this European derby has also qualified to the quarter finals in thrilling fashion. Russia faced the heavily favored Spain and set a very good defensive structure that forced the Spaniards into producing a lackluster passing fest. Yet, the Russian’s also needed to show mental strength. An own goal by 39-year-old Sergei Ignashevich forced Russia to attack, and they responded with a blitz towards the end of the first half. It led to a penalty equalizer by Artem Dzyuba. Ignashevich overcame his own demons, and himself produced a tough defensive display, along with goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev – who was the penalty shootout hero eventually.

As a youngster, Akinfeev looked set to become a world class goalkeeper. He won the 2005 UEFA Cup with CSKA Moscow and produced stunning performances such as keeping a clean sheet away vs Arsenal in the Champions League a year later. That game proved to be a turning point, as he conceded in 43 consecutive Champions League games. Akinfeev was ridiculed and became a laughing stock and has also symbolized the uncompetitive nature of the modern Russian footballer who preferred to stay at home and enjoy earning easy money rather than moving to play in Western Europe. But now, after helping the national team beat Spain in front of the home fans, he has cemented his place in Russian football folklore.

Akinfeev and Ignashevich will play their 550th game together vs Croatia, an astonishing number, as Russia will try to keep the dream alive – and they can gain optimism from the fact that Croatia are 0 from 2 vs World Cup hosts. The Spaniards, whom they defeated on Sunday, have also never beat a World Cup host previously. Ironically, Sochi’s distance from Zagreb and Moscow is almost similar – but it is definite the Russian fans are all in with their team now.

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World Cup Preview: Croatia v Denmark

Who? Croatia - Denmark
Where? Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
When? July 1, 20:00 (CET local time)

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

The night and the stadium where The Vatreni have captured everyone’s hearts this summer was in Nizhny Novogrod – after beating Argentina 3-0. Today, Croatia return to the town that is located 5 hours east from Moscow, this time to face Denmark in the round of 16. During the group stage, the Nizhny Novogrod stadium had the highest average of goals with 3.75 scored per game – a fact that would open our appetite for some entertaining football on Sunday.

The Croatians come after a 2-1 win over Iceland in a match that did not matter too much for them, besides keeping a fair play spirit and sportsmanship. The fight for second place was very dependent on the score, but Croatia played some of its main players and fought to win. Milan Badelij, who received the chance to start, repaid coach Zlatko Dalic’s faith with a goal and an assist. After finishing first in the group, Croatia find themselves in what is considered the more “comfortable” path to the finals. Many pundits name Spain as the only major powerhouse in this half of the bracket, but the Croatians would fancy their chances to achieve something unimaginable this summer – perhaps even topping their Bronze medal glory from France 1998.

But first, a very tough Danish team are waiting, and they are hungry for success as well. The two teams participate in big tournaments fairly regularly but have only met previously in Euro 1996, in a game that takes back Croatian fans for a trip down memory lane. Davor Šuker scored twice in a 3-0 win, while his second goal was a magical chip over Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel.  22 years later, Peter’s son Kasper is in goal for Denmark – and he will need to stop Croatia from creating another iconic and memorable moment.

Denmark (Yossi Medina)

Just like Croatia, so does Denmark dream of a first quarter-final appearance since 1998. With their talented squad and strong play that they perform in the group stage, Denmark wants to make the match harder for the Croatians.

During the group stage we saw one of the greatest Danish players nowadays, Christian Eriksen score and bring glory for Denmark. As a Tottenham player, Eriksen can get some inspiration from Luka Modrić, who also played for Spurs until he signed for Real Madrid while he was 26 years old. Eriksen is in the same age today, maybe he can dream on a new adventure on the future.

Denmark almost didn't reach the knockout stage in a major tournament since 1998. Their win against Nigeria at the round of 16 in that World Cup was their last knockout win and since than they lost three times in knockout matches, against Brazil in 1998, against England in 2002 and against Czech Republic in 2004. After 14 years of being eliminated in the group stage or even not qualifying at all, Denmark have the chance to make a great achievemtn.

Åge Hareide and his players are ready to make history. Croatia is the clear favorite, but if Denmark will keep their defensive style and their tough work, they can upset and make the game much more interesting.

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World Cup Preview: Iceland v Croatia

Who? Iceland - Croatia
Where? Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
When? June 26, 20:00 (CET local time)


As suspected previously, Iceland has experienced a hard time with being favorites vs Nigeria. The Super Eagles, led by an Ahmed Musa double, won the game and complicated Group D even more towards the last matchday. On Tuesday, Iceland and Croatia will square off – and perhaps Heimir Hallgrímsson and his boys would relish the opportunity to play underdogs once again and return to their comfort zone against the impressive Croatians.

Although drawing the first game vs Argentina felt like a victory, a brief look at Iceland’s fixtures reveals us a gloomy picture – the have not won a match since their last World Cup qualifier against minnows Kosovo, on October 9th, 2017. During that span, the team drew 3 times and lost 5. On the other hand, Iceland beat Croatia in their last meeting in Reykjavík in June 2017 and have finished above them in the World Cup qualifying group.

This time, the match will take place in Rostov. Besides the fact that Croatia have won the group and will perhaps field a weakened side, Iceland can enjoy a sort of a home advantage – 3 of their squad play their club football for local FC Rostov: Sverrir Ingason, Ragnar Sigurðsson and Björn Sigurðarson. Anecdotes aside, Iceland know they are in a must win situation to keep their chances alive. Even that might not be enough, as it very much depends on the result between Nigeria and Argentina. No doubt that every goal will count, as goal difference can play a factor in such a tight group – a fact that makes Gylfi Sigurðsson’s missed penalty vs Nigeria even more crucial and painful. Iceland would want to do their part and hope their fairy tale story will continue further.


Within 90 minutes, Croatia have instantly become Russia’s summer hit and some even dared to question whether they can go all the way this time. That’s what happens when you defeat Argentina 3-0 with such an emphatic performance.

For many, it reminded for a minute the 1998 team that beat Germany in the same score line. Instead of Šuker and Boban, the show was taken over by dynamo’s Modrić and Rakitić, who prove time and time again they are massively underrated in their Real Madrid and Barcelona roles respectively. Modrić’s strike against Argentina was an exact copy of an important Champions League goal he scored for Los Blancos vs Manchester United in 2013. Ante Rebić, who scored the opener and was equally impressive, is already linked to Tottenham Hotspur. He has revealed he had an intention to swap shirts with Lionel Messi after the game but nixed the idea since “The Argentines made such a bad impression on me, I expected much more”.

The 2 opening wins, along with how the rest of the group shaped up, means Croatia’s chances to finish first are around 99.8%, according to predictions. This surely means they can use the last game vs Iceland as an opportunity to rest some players and take it easy, with the next round on Sunday already in mind. If so, we might see names like Marko Pjaca, Mateo Kovačić and Milan Badelj get some minutes. The latter have played an important in Croatia’s qualifying campaign that included 2 games vs Iceland. Although the Nordic’s finished above the Balkan’s, Croatia have won 4 out of the 6 meetings the two faced, including a crucial one in the 2014 World Cup qualifying playoffs.

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World Cup Preview: Argentina v Croatia

Who? Argentina - Croatia
Where? Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
When? June 21, 20:00 (CET local time)

Argentina (Yossi Medina)

The world is still waiting for the arrival of one of its best footballers. After missing the penalty kick against Iceland, a lot of doubts arose about the ability of Lionel Messi to lead Argentina for a second World Cup final in a row.

We need to remember that Messi was not the only player that played poorly last Saturday. The Argentinians looked nervous and barely could handle with the strong Icelandic defense. In the past, Argentina faced such challenges like games against Iran or Switzerland in the previous World Cup. Yet, back then they had the strength to keep and looking for the goal and in 2018 it seems that they lack it.

In order to change it, Jorge Sampaoli is expected to change the formation for this match. Unlike against Iceland, Argentina will use a front line of three, including Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Cristian Pavón. This change means that Ángel Di María is expected to start this game as a substitute.

If Argentina will fail to win against Croatia, the Albiceleste will be in an unusual situation with no wins after two group stage matches. Only once in the history Argentina started a World Cup campaign with such a record, it was in 1974 and Argentina qualified to the next stage only due to a better goal difference.

With all the pressure and the fact that Croatia believes in the opportunity to make a great result in this game, Argentina can feel that this game is a do or die match. Another bad result and the team will quickly become nervous, a win and Argentina will keep dreaming on their journey to Moscow. It's going to be a hard night for Argentina.

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

1.3.2006: Croatia and Argentina face in an international break friendly. One young Lionel Messi scores his first ever goal for the Albiceleste, yet the Croatians still won 3-2 on the night. Today, these two will square for a crucial game in the World Cup group stage. Undoubtedly, every Croatian would sign up for the same scenario from 12 years ago.

Besides Messi, only one player from that game is present in Russia 2018: Luka Modrić, which coincidentally marked his international debut. Modrić has similarly became the leader for his national team on the pitch and has played a massive part in Real Madrid’s 3 successive Champions League trophies. However, these credentials didn’t automatically earn him the love of Croatian fans, who do not appreciate his involvement in the local football corruption scandal, starred by former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic. The tumultuous relationship between Modrić and the fans has known ups and downs, but after his man of the match performance and penalty goal against Nigeria, he might have softened up some of his critics. 

On the other hand, some internal turmoil sparked up in the Croatian camp after Saturday’s win: Striker Nikola Kalinić has been sent home after refusing to enter as a substitute vs Nigeria, perhaps due to frustration of not being in Zlatko Dalic’s starting 11. Croatian national teams were never known for maintaining a quiet atmosphere, and it is remained to be seen whether that might affect their progress. With that in mind, Croatia know their strengths. Exactly 2 years ago, they pulled out an impressive winning performance vs Spain during the Euros. Hopefully for them, they can reproduce that against a nervous Argentinian side.

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World Cup Preview: Croatia v Nigeria

Who? Croatia - Nigeria
Where? Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
When? June 16, 21:00 (CET local time)

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

20 years ago, Croatia shocked the football world by finishing 3rd in their World Cup debut. Suker, Boban, Vlaovic and the rest have simply dazzled their opponents, peaking with a 3-0 victory over European Champions Germany in the 1/4 finals. They were stopped eventually by hosts France, but the achievement was way beyond expectations.

Since then, the Croatians are constantly underachieving in the biggest stage of all: 3 early exits in the group stage, and even a failure to qualify in 2010. That was not due to lack of talent, quite the contrary, but a contributing factor is ongoing internal problems that involve the FA, fans and players altogether. These issues would be covered later throughout the tournament, but now it’s time to talk football.

Croatia’s opening fixture pits them against Nigeria. This would mark the two’s first ever meeting, and the Balkanian’s prepared to this occasion by beating a strong Senegalese side last week. Experienced defender Vedran Ćorluka, has said recently that the players “are tired of being billed as a talented generation which keeps flattering to deceive”. Ćorluka himself played only a small part in Lokomotiv Moscow’s sensational title run in Russia, due to an injury-ridden season. He will certainly hope his other team would succeed similarly on Russian soil, but also to play a bigger part in the process.

Saturday’s venue is the brand-new stadium in Kaliningrad, the western most city to host games this summer. Kaliningrad is an isolated exclave located between Lithuania and Poland, that became a Russian city post World War II. The city would host mostly European teams during the World Cup and that creates an easier journey for fans who wish to avoid Russian mainland. Thus, we can expect the Croatian fans to come in large numbers and generate a massive atmosphere. Sretno!

Nigeria (Yossi Medina)

Back in the 90's, Nigeria was one of the teams that you waited to see their games. They reached the knockout stage twice in 1994 and 1998 with an impressive style of football and nostalgic names like Jay-Jay Okocha, Finidi George and Sunday Oliseh.

Though, this is the past and Nigeria suffered a long era of failures. In the next three World Cups they failed to qualify for the knockouts twice and even missed the World Cup in 2006. In 2014 they reached the round of 16 once again but they did it with poor football, as they managed to win only 1 out of 3 group stage matches.

Although they have been drawn to a tough group, Nigeria still hopes to make another great performance. One of the key moments in their warm-up was in Wembley, while they played against England. They began the game badly with conceding two goals. A few subs and playing in a more defensive style made the scoring mission almost impossible for England and Nigeria could made better attacks.

While most of the top guns of Nigeria are on the front line, the Nigerian defense will have an important role in the Super Eagles mission. Most of the leading defenders in the squad are young, but they have enough experience to help. The main player will be Kenneth Omeruo, who played in Turkey in the last three seasons. Even though he is only 24 years old, five years ago he played all the matches of Nigeria in their way to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations title.

It will be a different Nigeria than we used to know. The famous attackers will need their help from the back, which may make the style less attractive. Yet, for Nigeria it's a chance to make it through with a smart style, an important element in such a tournament.

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World Cup Warm-up: Brazil v Croatia

Who? Brazil - Croatia
Where? Anfield, Liverpool
When? June 3, 1600 (CET local time)

Brazil (Vitor Buratini Mendes)

In 2014, Brazil hosted the World Cup. The expectations were huge. Many believed that it would be the year that the “Seleção canarinho” will win its sixth title of the biggest soccer tournament in the world. However, the first minutes of the Brazil national team were not the best: in the 11th minute, Marcelo scored an own goal and began the scoring for the Croatian team. Brazil managed to win the game, however, this could already be a sign for the future in this tournament, that will be end with one of the biggest humiliations in football history.

Marcelo scored the only own goal of Brazil in the history of the World Cup. A terrible achievement that affect a player and even finish his part in national team. Coach Dunga, who came after Felipão's resignation, did not call up Marcelo. Furthermore, he was left out of the 2016 Copa América squad. After Dunga's failure, Tite was hired as the new coach to save the team and make it to the World Cup. One of his first steps was to get Marcelo back to the team.

Four years later, Marcelo has evolved a lot. At that time, he was already one of the best left backs of the world and today he may be considered as one of the best in history. He was very important this season, including two assists at the Champions League final and scoring important goals throughout the knockout stage against Bayern, Juventus and PSG.

Brazil's journey begins today in the friendly against Croatia. After all, it's the time to see whether Marcelo let behind the ghost of the own goal from 2014. Who know, maybe this time he would not score for Brazil?

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

Since becoming an independent country, the Croatian national team has qualified to 10 out of 12 possible major tournaments. Despite being a small and a relatively young country, Croatia are a very experienced and dangerous side. More than half of the Croatian squad from 2014 has been named in the preliminary squad for the 2018 World Cup - that includes include Champions League winners Luka Modrić and Mateo Kovačić, alongside runner up Dejan Lovren and other household names such as Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić.

Having been drawn in Group D alongside Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland - undoubtedly a top candidate for the “Group of Death” this tournament, Zlatko Dalic’s men would need to step up their game in order to advance through, in contrast to the big disappointment from the 2014 World Cup where the Balkan side failed to advance from the group stage.

Speaking of which, there is a familiar opponent ahead. Croatia will face Brazil on Sunday, in a rematch of the opening game from 4 years ago. The Seleção, won 3-1 that day in São Paulo, but the Croatians still feel injustice was done due to some questionable officiating. The game in Anfield might be less meaningful and fiery but serves as an important preparation for both teams. The Vatreni view Brazil as an opponent that most resemble South American powerhouse Argentina. Likewise, their next friendly will be against Senegal, who will take the role of fellow Africans Nigeria. And what about Iceland? Well, these two sides are familiar enough with each other after facing off twice in the qualifiers.

As Lovren will be able to testify, Anfield is one of the most unique stadiums in the world - and with all the big names both sides have to offer, we can expect a great afternoon of football.

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