Long labelled the perennial dark horses of international competition, Croatia head into Euro 2012 with a talented squad hungry for glory. Four years ago in Austria and Switzerland, the Balkan nation cruised through their group campaign with a 100 per cent record intact, recording victories over Germany, Austria and Poland.
Many had Slaven Bilic's men down as favourites to go all the way but it wasn't to be. A cruel penalty shootout defeat to Turkey in the quarter-finals ended Croatia's campaign after so much early promise.
Four years on things look a little more bleak for the team. After failing to qualify for World Cup 2010 the Balkans relied on a playoff victory over Turkey - exacting sweet revenge in the process from 2008 - to secure a spot in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
Croatia are now faced with the challenge of having to navigate past a tricky draw as they enter the tournament in the same group as World and European Champions Spain, the mighty Italy and a resolute Republic of Ireland side who sit under the expert tutelage of Giovanni Trapattoni.
And if this wasn't enough, there are other substantial hurdles standing in the way of the Balkans as they look to reach the latter stages of the competition.
Bilic, who took charge of the national side in July 2006 and is the third longest-serving coach at the Euros (behind Denmark's Morten Olsen and Germany's Joachim Low), has already announced he will leave his current role after the tournament, agreeing a return to club football with Locomotiv Moscow.
The effect this will have on the team is unknown, though considering his close relationship with many of Croatia's key stars, it wouldn't be a surprise if this has unsettled the camp with the likes of Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka and Eduardo da Silva spending their entire international career under the 43-year-old.
|HITTING THE WRONG BENCHMARK|
To add to that, Bilic faces the unique dilemma of entering the European Championship with several key names suffering from a lack of game time for their respective sides. Eduardo, Danijel Pranjic and Niko Kranjcar have all played pivotal roles under his stewardship yet it's very possible the trio could start the Ireland match on the bench due to their limited playing time during the 2011-12 campaign.
The three stars saw a combined total of 2486 minutes of action last term for their club teams. In comparison, Kranjcar's former Tottenham Hotspur team-mate and compatriot Modric played 3457 minutes - highlighting the difficulty Bilic will have in uniting a squad possessing varying match fitness levels.
|13/8||Croatia are 13/8 with William Hill to qualify from Group C.|
Arguably Croatia's biggest hurdle will be overcoming the loss of their talismanic striker, Ivica Olic, who has been ruled out of the competition with a thigh injury.
The 32-year-old may not be at his peak and has struggled with injuries in recent years, yet his 77 international caps prove how fundamental his experience is to Bilic's team.
His place in the starting XI is likely to go to Nikica Jelavic and while the forward may have enjoyed an excellent 2012 since his January move to Everton, his record of two goals in 19 appearances for his country is hardly going to fill the Croatian public with confidence.
With uncertainty ascending over the Croatia camp, victory over the Irish on Sunday is imperative to restore belief amongst a squad who could do with a confidence boost. If the Balkans are unable to overcome their much-maligned handicaps, an earlier-than-expected exit beckons once again.