FOR a while there, it seemed that Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, could be on to something.

Following an injury crisis that left his team without their first and second choice for the left-back position, Dalic fielded Borna Barisic in a qualifier against Azerbaijan last week. The Rangers player had previously only appeared in international friendlies and this was his competitive debut, but he did well, rounding off a solid two-way performance with a close-range goal late in the first half, when he equalised the visitors’ surprise opener.

Croatia went on to win the game 2-1 in what was a less-than-convincing performance; however, Barisic was among those who received widespread praise. Although he did make some defensive mistakes, he won his challenges, produced a few dangerous crosses and generally looked like he belonged there, in a team that reached the World Cup final last summer.

Part of the domestic media, always prone to jumping to conclusions and judging players on the basis of a sole game, even decided that Barisic was the solution to the long-standing quandary that Croatia have had with that one particular position, ever since Robert Jarni retired in 2002.


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“Of our current options, Barisic is the one in the best form,” Dalic said, raising some eyebrows.

So he was given another start against Hungary, three days later. This time he only got 29 minutes before he had to leave the pitch, owing to an injury that will rule him out of Sunday’s derby against Celtic and likely the next two or three weeks, but it was enough to prove those conclusions premature, to say the least.

The Hungarians had clearly marked him down as a weak link and produced dangerous attacks down the flank that he was supposed to defend.

In fact, Barisic was only doing what he has always done.

In games against weaker opponents who tend to defend deep and don’t possess much in terms of counter-attacking potential – like Azerbaijan – he’s a welcome expansive threat with his energetic runs and often rather accurate crosses.

When he has more freedom to overlap and doesn’t have to worry so much about getting back in defence on time, he’s usually good. At Osijek, where he played before joining Rangers last summer, they used those abilities as much as they could, sometimes even to the detriment of their defensive stability.


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But when an opponent demands more focus primarily on defensive tasks, that’s where Barisic usually disapppoints; he’s not a "big-game player" simply because he can’t handle proper attacking threats in defence and still be capable of doing his share offensively. He never could. And, given that he started out as a winger and was only converted to full-back a few years ago, it’s not that hard to conclude why.

Barisic is really more of a mediocre winger who can defend a bit posing as full-back, whereas Croatia – and Rangers, I’m sure – would prefer to have a proper full-back, even mediocre, who can attack a bit.

Croatia lost 2-1 to Hungary after a very poor display of form, but Barisic escaped criticism given that he only played less than a third of the game and Croatia were 1-0 up when he was substituted. So he remains largely unscathed – in a manner of speaking – although he has shown enough to raise doubts.

There are younger players in his position coming through and Dalic will be under pressure to call them up, especially if he is to stick to his own publicly proclaimed rule of preferring those players who appear for their clubs regularly and are consistent in form, which Barisic is not. He never was.

Alex Holiga is a Croatian football journalist who writes for When Saturday Comes, The Guardian, The Blizzard and Four Four Two