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Croatia v Wales preview: Dragons face difficult start to post-Bale era

A trip to World Cup bronze medallists Croatia is a far from ideal place for a Wales side in transition to begin their quest to qualify for the Euros.

Wales' first World Cup appearance in 64 years proved to be Gareth Bale's swansong as the nation's all-time record goalscorer hung up his boots shortly after returning from Qatar. 

Key midfield cog Joe Allen followed Bale's example by retiring from international football, along with record appearance holder Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams, leaving coach Rob Page with a few big holes to fill in his squad. 

Injuries have only added to Page's problems and Wales are understandably 5/1 underdogs to record a first-ever win over Croatia in Split. 

Unlike Wales, the majority of Croatia's elder statesmen have stuck around post-World Cup for another qualifying campaign and they pose a formidable challenge on home soil.

WhatCroatia v Wales - Euros qualifier
WhereStadion Poljud, Split
WhenSaturday, 25th March 2023
How to watchS4C & Viaplay Sports 1
OddsCroatia 4/7, Draw 3/1, Wales 5/1

Home form key to Croats' success

Croatia have never lost a home European Championship qualifier, winning 27 of their previous 35 outings, and will expect to maintain that proud record on the road to Germany for next summer's Euros

Fresh from another stellar World Cup campaign in which they reached the semi-finals having been runners-up four years previously, the Blazers are 5/6 to finish top of a relatively weak qualifying group which features Wales, Turkey, Armenia and Latvia.
Croatia and Wales were paired in the last wave of European Championship qualifiers with Zlatko Dalic’s men coming out on top 2-1 at home before a 1-1 draw in Cardiff.

Midfield maestros could torment visitors

Dalic deployed Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic in midfield for the home encounter against the Dragons in 2019 and the trio are again expected to be in the line-up on Saturday. 

That world-class engine room are a match for most sides, let alone a Wales midfield now missing the talents of Allen. 

The ageless Modric, who turns 38 in September, remains the lynchpin in the side and while Croatia's 'golden generation' is nearly at an end, they remain strong in midfield, still have Ivan Perisic charging down the flank and can call upon a rising defensive star in Josko Gvardiol. 

Croatia's weakness remains the lack of a top striker but likely focal point Andrej Kramaric, 8/5 Anytime Goalscorer, at least comes into this fixture off the back of a brace for club side Hoffenheim.

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Injuries hinder Page's plan

Kramaric will be lining up against a Wales defence missing its most experienced member in Ben Davies, who has withdrawn from the squad with a hamstring issue. 

The Tottenham man is not alone in having to sit out the game with goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who could have started ahead of the out-of-sorts Danny Ward had he been fit, and Brennan Johnson both pulling out. 

The loss of Johnson is a significant blow given his recent form for Nottingham Forest and Page could be forced to throw in some of his more inexperienced players in Split with six uncapped stars in the squad. 

Page still has the likes of Aaron Ramsey, who has inherited the captaincy from Bale, Daniel James and Kieffer Moore to call on but the team arguably needs to be freshened up after a disastrous World Cup campaign.

Wales on the ropes 

One point and one goal were a poor return in Qatar for a nation that has had its expectations raised by decent European Championship showings. 

Having qualified for three of the last four major tournaments, there's a belief in Wales they can edge out Turkey for second spot in the group, but recent results suggest it won't be straightforward. 

Wales are winless in eight matches, losing six of those, and are unlikely to end that poor run against a seasoned Croatia side. 

The Dragons won just 26 per cent of their matches without Bale during his international career and it will take a while to adapt to life without their talisman. 

A run of one goal in the last four games doesn't bode well for the Welsh either and, without livewire Johnson, they could have a limited impact in Split. 

Croatia recorded four wins to nil from five home matches when qualifying for the World Cup and could open up with another victory and a clean sheet at 5/4.

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