Croatia’s class of 2018 can argue to be the best performing dark horse that never actually came away with the trophy when they made it all the way to the World Cup final in Russia. They became the first side outside of the established elite to make the final in the modern era, a minor miracle for a nation who only became independent in the 1990s and have a population of just four million.
It was a true golden generation though for a country with such a small population, with big name players all over the squad, including Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. Zlatko Dalic was the man who masterminded their journey, and they remained unbeaten up until their 4-2 defeat in the final to France. A commanding 3-0 win over Argentina in the group stage was the result which made people sit up and notice, especially after this same group of players flattered to deceive in 2014 and 2016.
Their three knockout round wins were all full of drama and nail-biting finales. The 115th minute in both their Last 16 and Quarter-Final ties produced moments which prevented a smooth progression to the next round. Modric missed a penalty against Denmark, and Mario Fernandes scored an equaliser for Russia, moments which caused both matches to go to penalties. Rakitic remained cool and composed to score the clinching spot kick in both ties to set up a semi-final clash with England, a game that would go to extra time once again, with Mandzukic scoring the winner on 109 minutes.