Croatia produced a fine performance to defeat England to reach the final of the 2018 World Cup. The Three Lions took the lead through Kieran Trippier, but an Ivan Perisic equalizer sent the match to extra-time before Mario Mandzukic guided his team through to the final.
It was the first time in the history of the Croatian team that they reached the final of the World Cup, previously falling short in 1998 when they were defeated by France in the last four of the competition – the team they face in their bid to lift the trophy. Zlatko Dalic’s men are underdogs to defeat Les Bleus in the final in Moscow in the Betfair World Cup betting tips, but a triumph would be one of the greatest stories in football, with a country of just 4 million vying for the crown.
Croatia’s rise can be comparable to that of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL, with Doug Marrone’s men playing above expectations last season to reach the AFC Championship game. The Jaguars have been a trendy pick for a resurgence for the past four seasons, but former head coach Gus Bradley failed to get a rise out of his team. Marrone took the reins towards the end of the 2016 campaign and his first full term in charge was a huge success.
The foundation for their charge into their first playoff appearance since 2007 was their outstanding defense. No team in the league boasts as much talent as the Jaguars at all three levels on the defensive side of the ball. Jacksonville boasts All-Pro level players on their defensive line, linebacking corps and secondary. Calais Campbell enjoyed a dominant campaign in the middle of the line, having signed from the Arizona Cardinals. He notched a career-high 14.5 sacks over the course of the term, earning an All-Pro berth. Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler Jr, and Malik Jackson were just as effective, frightening opposing quarterbacks with their speed and power.
The secondary was a shutdown unit, led by Jalen Ramsey. The cornerback has risen to become arguably the best player at his position in the NFL. Teamed up alongside AJ Bouye on the other perimeter, the Jags were able to put the clamps on almost every offense they faced. The middle of the field was patrolled by Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, who elevated the level of their play to make Marrone’s men a unit without a weakness on defense.
The problems emerged on offense as Blake Bortles’ limitations held his team back from claiming one of the top two seeds in the AFC. It could be the factor that holds them back from doing a Croatia to reach their first Super Bowl in the 2018 campaign. Leonard Fournette had his moments in the backfield as a rookie and more will be expected of him to continue his development. However, the improvement has to come from Bortles. Nick Foles proved that there can be a rags to riches story at the quarterback position as he succeeded where Bortles and Jags failed in defeating Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
To reach Super Bowl LIII, Jacksonville will have to beat the Patriots and Brady or maybe even the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger. The foundation is in place for the Jaguars to make a run at history, but they will need flawless execution from their offense to get over the line.