Croatia head to the Qatar World Cup in the unusual position of looking like one of the stronger teams, having thrived on their reputation as outsiders for much of the team’s existence.

After topping their qualifying group with only one defeat – in their opening game away to Slovenia more than a year and a half ago – and conceding just four goals in the process, the 2018 World Cup runners-up are riding a wave of momentum.

They also recently came top of their Nations League group ahead of world champions France and Denmark and are widely expected to make it through World Cup Group F into the knockout stage along with Belgium at the expense of Canada and Morocco.

Coach Zlatko Dalic is steeped in tournament experience as he leads the national side to his second World Cup, having also taken them to Euro 2020 where they lost to Spain in the last 16.

He has lost some of the leading names – chief among them striker Mario Mandzukic and midfielder Ivan Rakitic – from the team that went all the way to the final at the last World Cup four years ago in Russia where they lost 4-2 to France.

But Dalic can count on a backbone of experienced campaigners, including the winner of the Golden Ball award for the best player at the 2018 World Cup: Luka Modric – the Real Madrid wizard who at 37 has one last shot at glory.

Modric remains as pivotal to Croatia as he is for the Spanish giants whose triumphs in the Champions League and La Liga last season were aided significantly by the midfielder’s defence-splitting assists.

Alongside Modric in midfield are likely to be Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea, both at the top of their game, aged 29 and 28 respectively, with Andrej Kramaric, 31, likely to be spearheading the front line.

Kramaric has been a star at Hoffenheim in Germany for whom he has scored almost 100 Bundesliga goals despite failing to impress in the Premier League when he briefly played second fiddle to Jamie Vardy in Leicester City’s title-winning side of 2015-16.

Ivan Perisic, 33, will also pose a goalscoring threat against any side in Qatar, having confirmed his attacking credentials this season in England for Tottenham Hotspur.

Alongside the experienced core group of players, Croatia can count on younger talent including defenders Josko Gvardiol, 20, Josip Stanisic, 22, and Borna Sosa, 24, who all play in the Bundesliga.