By Zoran Milosavljevic
June 5 (Reuters) - Based on the pedigree of their squad, Croatia have high hopes of reaching the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup, but other factors may come into play against hosts Brazil, Cameroon and Mexico.
The Croatians, who have not reached the last 16 since their impressive third-place finish in the 1998 tournament, face a daunting opener against favourites Brazil in Sao Paulo on June 12 and defeat would put pressure on them to win the remaining two group fixtures against dangerous opponents.
Their preparations will also be challenging, with long-haul flights across Brazil to face Cameroon in the Amazonian city of Manaus on June 18 before taking on the Mexicans in Recife five days later.
The specific jungle climate in Manaus, hot and humid, will take its toll on both teams although Cameroon's players might find they can deal with it easier, especially if they played under the hot African sun when they were youngsters.
Croatia, who have qualified for eight out of 10 major tournaments as an independent nation, will also be under considerable pressure from their fans and media to snap an under-achieving streak if not to emulate past glory.
Having missed Euro 2000, the Croatians were knocked out in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, when they beat more fancied Italy but lost to Ecuador and Mexico.
Croatia suffered the same fate in Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup before they lost a dramatic Euro 2008 quarter-final to Turkey. They then failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and could not get past the group stage in Euro 2012 after being pitted with eventual winners Spain and runners-up Italy.
Croatia will sorely miss their top scorer Mario Mandzukic in the opening game against Brazil, with the towering Bayern Munich striker suspended after getting sent off in the final qualifier against Iceland.
Much will depend on how quickly their coach Niko Kovac, who took over from Igor Stimac shortly before Croatia's 2-0 aggregate playoff win over Iceland, adapts to the challenges of managing a talented squad during a tournament.
Kovac's only prior coaching experience was a good start in the qualifying campaign for the Euro 2015 Under-21 finals, when he racked up four wins in as many games before he was promoted to take Stimac's place at the most critical stage of Croatia's qualifying campaign.
The former defensive midfielder restored order in the dressing room after the Croatians almost fell apart under Stimac, who lost four of his last six games in charge and, more importantly, his authority in the dressing room.
Playmaker Luka Modric will have to fire on all cylinders for Croatia to navigate the group and Kovac also has few world class options in defence, missing banned stalwart Josip Simunic.
There is plenty of depth up front, however, in the proven scorers of Ivica Olic, Eduardo da Silva and Nikica Jelavic, supported by the tried and trusted attacking midfielder Ivan Rakitic. Mandzukic will also be vital once he has served his one-match ban.
The youth is personified by talented 20-year-old central midfielder Mateo Kovacic who burst into the spotlight in qualifying and by defender Dejan Lovren after he found his feet in the Premier League at Southampton.
In the final analysis, Croatia are capable of advancing into the business end of the tournament if they can produce their best football while managing huge expectations at home to rekindle some of the 1998 gloss. (Editing by Martyn Herman and Mike Collett)