The key battle when Croatia meet Denmark is likely to be between the Danes’ playmaker, Christian Eriksen, and the extravagantly talented Croatian midfield.
Former Croatia manager Slaven Bilic has called this the most talented team his country have ever boasted. And while that hasn’t been backed up by every performance from Croatia at the World Cup so far, there’s no doubt the talent in their squad is enough to cause any opponent serious problems.
The midfield pairing of Ivan Rakitic and the imperious Luka Modric is as good as any in the tournament, and Marcelo Brozovic put in a magnificent performance when deployed just behind them against Argentina.
Further up the field, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic have been among Europe’s elite forwards for half a decade now, while Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic, who both currently play for unfashionable German teams, could each become big names over the course of the next few years.
And although their defence might not be as star-studded, with Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren the only well-known face, just two teams — Spain and England — conceded fewer goals than Croatia during the European qualifying stages.
Their group stage was a mixed bag. Croatia did just enough to deserve their victory — via an own-goal and a penalty — in the disappointing opening match against Nigeria. Next came an impressive 3-0 victory over Argentina.
Yes, it was an error-strewn game in which Croatia were assisted by some calamitous goalkeeping from Willy Caballero, and things could have been different had Croatian forward Ante Rebic been sent off for an unpleasant first-half foul.
But out of the handful of heavyweight clashes the World Cup group stages offered, Croatia undoubtedly put in the most impressive performance of all that day.
Denmark, meanwhile, earned a narrow win after a very even opening match, in which Peru’s Christian Cueva missed a penalty when the game as goalless.
The Danes’ next match saw them score one of the goals of the tournament, when Nicolai Jorgensen’s delightful flick set up Christian Eriksen’s bullet finish.
However, Denmark then participated in the worst game of the World Cup to date. Their 0-0 draw against France consisted for the most part of tumbleweed blowing across the pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, interspersed with occasional loud boos from the crowd, who simply couldn’t take it anymore.
The Danes’ defensive resilience is in no small part due to the central defensive partnership of Sevilla’s Simon Kjaer and Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen, which seems to be the team’s most talented combination.
Central midfielder Thomas Delaney secured a transfer to Borussia Dortmund just ahead of the tournament, having impressed since moving to the Bundesliga 18 months ago with Werder Bremen.
But Denmark’s most important player by some margin is Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen, who was integral to most of the good play that the Danes produced in the group stages.
Looking ahead to the two sides’ round-of16 tie, the most intriguing question going into the game is what Croatia will do to counteract the threat that Eriksen poses. The most logical option would seem to be the selection of the defensive-minded Fiorentina captain, Milan Badelj.
But will Croatia instead go with a double-pivot of Rakitic and Modric, trusting one of them of them to cover Eriksen when needed? Or will they pick either Brozovic, who was so impressive against Argentina, or even Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic?
Whatever midfield that Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic opts for, though, the general pattern of play is likely to be similar. Denmark will invite Croatia on to them, try to win the ball, and then hope to feed Eriksen quickly.
Whether or not they succeed in doing so could well dictate the final result.