Niko Kovac faces an agonising wait to see if two of Croatia’s key players will be banned for part of next summer’s World Cup in Brazil, in a decision that could dent their prospects of reaching the second round.
Croatia can currently be backed at 5/4 to qualify from a group containing Cameroon, Mexico and hosts Brazil, but any hopes of reaching the knockout stages could be severely dented if FIFA choose to suspend either Mario Mandzukic or Josip Simunic.
The Bayern Munich striker is already guaranteed to miss one of the group fixtures after a studs-high challenge on the left knee of Iceland’s Johann Gudmundsson, which saw the forward receive a straight red card in the second leg of their qualification playoff.
Under the current FIFA regulations, Mandzukic could face a ban of up to three games; effectively ruling out one of Croatia’s best attacking stars for the entirety of the group stage.
This is because disciplinary rules dictate a ban of one match for “serious foul play” while anything that comes under the term “assaulting” a fellow player – e.g. punching, kicking and elbowing – results in a ban of at least two matches.
Despite this Kovac has already stated his intention to pick Mandzukic for the squad, with the stand-in coach predicting that the striker will miss at least two games, but nevertheless gambling on the team remaining in contention by the time of their third fixture.
With Croatia facing Brazil in their opening game, a win in their second match against a tricky Cameroon side will most likely be crucial, with Mandzukic returning for the potentially crunch decider between themselves and Mexico. It all makes the Balkan nation potentially one to back at 4/7 to exit the competition at the group stage.
The headaches don’t end there for Kovac either with defender Simunic facing a similarly lengthy ban for his part in leading a chant in Zagreb that used a fascist slogan after their victory over Iceland.
He has already been fined $4,300 by Croatian public prosecutors, who criticised the player for “spreading racial hatred”, but FIFA could take more severe action against the defender.
It would be a massive blow to the national side who remain reliant on the 35-year-old veteran who famously received three yellow cards against Australia at the 2006 finals.
The bans could play perfectly into the hands of Brazil though, with the Selecao, who are 1/50 to qualify from Group A, facing the European nation in the tournament curtain-raiser.
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