Croatia’s golden generation will have to grit their teeth once more if they’re to progress to the knockouts of the Euros after a 3-0 opening loss to Spain that some feel was harsher on the scoreline than reality, but nonetheless leaves them with little room for error in their second match against Albania.

Manager Zlatko Dalic admitted the Spain result ‘wasn’t a pretty sight’ but argued the success of his side at major tournaments since the 2018 World Cup should buy his players a little more respect than they’re usually apportioned, having arrived in Germany once again wearing their perennial ‘dark horse’ label.

‘I think there’s a very good chance Croatia finishes second in the group, or third. When you compare them to the other teams in the group they’re still better than Italy and much better than Albania, although that [reputation] doesn’t have to mean everything’, Croatian football journalist Aleksandar Holiga told Box2Box.

‘I wouldn’t have described Spain as dominant, but I would say they had control of the game. They were already 3-0 up at halftime so whatever happened in the second part of the game, you can’t look at things from the same point of view as the first.

‘Croatia had their chances and were dangerous when they crossed the halfway line, but Spain did control the game. It wasn’t too hard for them.’

Should Croatia fail to turn the tide against the unfancied Albanians in Hamburg – who will be slightly more fancied after their stoic showing against Italy, punctuated by Nedim Bajrami’s 23rd second opener – critics will likely point to the age of their midfield in Luka Modric (38), Mateo Kovacic (30) and Marcelo Brozovic (31) – the latter in particular ‘not the Brozovic we’re used to’ against Spain, according to Holiga.

He also believes Dalic will need to manufacture better output from the best of their next generation, Josko Gvardiol, who’s breakout tournament at the 2022 World Cup earned him a move to Manchester City six months later, but who’s time there since has seen him become something of a puzzle in the chequered shirt.

‘It’s obvious Gvardiol is the only Croatian player currently at an elite, world class level, he’s their best player at the moment. The problem with him in the context of the national team is that his role at Manchester City can’t be replicated.

‘At City he plays a hybrid role, something between a centre back and full back, and he’s Croatia’s best option on the left, I don’t think he’s as good there as he would be playing centrally. Dalic decided this ahead of the tournament, especially for the game against Spain and probably Italy.

‘He didn’t say anything about the Albania game, so we might see Gvardiol moving back to centre back, if only for this one game, and to have [Borna] Sosa playing left back, which would be a much more attacking option.’