Undefeated in 2020, Slovenia head into their opening fixture of World Cup qualification full of confidence after a near-perfect Nations League campaign, with Matjaz Kek’s side winning four and drawing two on their way to top spot and promotion from League C Group 3 last year.
Their most recent match was another anti-climactic goalless stalemate with Greece, but Slovenia marched to doubles over Kosovo and Moldova with professionalism to earn a spot in League B for the next cycle, but an appearance on the world stage has eluded them since 2010 and they will be determined to right the wrongs of previous qualification campaigns this time around.
Slovenia’s time in South Africa saw them finish just one point below England and the USA as they bowed out at the group stage, and their bids to make the 2014 and 2018 editions both ended in failure, so Kek’s men must quickly click into gear if they are to have any chance of pipping Russia, Slovakia or Croatia to one of the top two spots in Group H.
Even though Slovenia were not exactly facing world-beating teams last year, five wins from eight across all competitions is certainly cause for optimism, and Kek’s defence – marshalled by Atletico Madrid number one Jan Oblak – only conceded one goal in the whole of 2020.
Furthermore, Kek’s men have only suffered defeat in one of their last 12 home matches in all competitions – although their strong form on familiar territory was not enough to see them qualify for this summer’s Euros – and another strong showing on home soil against the 2018 runners-up would certainly lay down a marker for the rest of their qualifying campaign.
Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic pictured on November 11, 2020
Two years on from their enthralling World Cup final, France and Croatia renewed hostilities in the UEFA Nations League, but Les Bleus once again were simply too strong for their adversaries as they marched to back-to-back victories over Zlatko Dalic’s men last autumn.
Indeed, Croatia mixed with the big boys in League A Group 3 but managed to prevail in just one of their six matches in the tournament – a narrow 2-1 win over Sweden – and having lost the other five to avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth, any prospects of another shot at glory on the world stage appear incredibly slim.
However, most would have written Dalic’s men off before a ball was kicked in Russia three years ago, so Croatia certainly will not be travelling to Qatar just to make up the numbers, but they must first navigate their group stage, where nothing less than first place will do if they are to be seen as genuine contenders once again.
Croatia travel to Slovenia having won just two of their 12 away matches since the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup, although they have only failed to score in one of those dozen matches on unfamiliar turf and are hardly short of goals with the likes of Andrej Kramaric, Ivan Perisic and Tottenham Hotspur’s worst nightmare Mislav Orsic in the ranks.
Furthermore, the visitors have never lost to Slovenia in any of their nine meetings since 1991 – winning six and drawing three against their midweek opponents – and the last game between the two sides saw an Ivan Rakitic-inspired Croatia win 3-2 in a 2008 friendly.