Through late April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Croatia. Click here for the full archive.
FIFA world ranking: No. 23.
How they qualified for Germany: Won UEFA Group 8 with a 7-3-0 record.
Previous World Cups and finishes: Two appearances (1998, 2002). Third place in '98.
Manager: Zlatko Kranjcar, third year with team.
Like his father, the team's manager, 21-year-old Niko Kranjcar is something of a Croatian prodigy. He broke out with Dinamo Zagreb at 16, scored on his debut and was captain of the club by 18. And like his father -- a fantastic striker who accumulated only 13 international caps (11 for Yugoslavia and two for Croatia) -- he went overlooked by his national team. The younger Kranjcar finally got his first cap last February (thanks, Dad!), and has since settled into an attacking role.
Kranjcar can play up top, but he's usually tucked in behind the strikers in a 3-5-2 setup. He's strong and possesses fantastic vision and a deft passing touch. On the other hand, he's big (his critics might say overweight) and not very disciplined. Kranjcar dreams of playing for Barcelona -- three games in Group F should provide a pretty good idea of whether or not he's got enough game to fit in with the Catalan giants.
What to watch for
Croatia burst onto the scene in '98, annihilating Germany en route to a semifinal berth in its first World Cup. (The Croats held a 1-0 lead on France before faltering; they bounced back to beat the Netherlands in the third-place game.) Since then, they failed to qualify for Euro 2000, were bounced from the '02 World Cup in the group stage and never made it out of the group phase at Euro '04. Croatia's '06 qualifying campaign was also a head-scratcher: It didn't lose a game and beat Sweden twice but was held to draws by Malta and Bulgaria.
The team's strength is its defense, which is anchored by Robert Kovac of Juventus. (Three of the five goals Croatia conceded in qualifying came when Kovac was off the field.) They're also strong up top, with Rangers' Dado Prso leading the strike force, and they're above average on the wings -- Marko Babic is more than adequate on the left, and Darijo Srna is something of a Beckham of the Balkans on the right. The problem lies inside this solid perimeter. The central midfield is workmanlike at best, though if Kranjcar the Younger emerges as a legitimate playmaking force, the Croats could easily work their way into the knockout stages.
Group: F (Brazil, Japan, Australia).
Key match in group stage: June 22 vs. Australia. This game will likely decide if we'll see those red-gingham jerseys in the final 16. If that doesn't make the contest interesting enough, consider this: The Aussies have three players with Croatian roots (Mark Viduka, Zeljko Kalac and Josip Skoko), while the Croats have three players born in Australia (Josip Simunic, Joey Didulica and Anthony Seric).