Croatia head into Euro 2024 with cautious optimism despite a tough draw, and despite still being heavily reliant on the 38-year-old Luka Modric as he nears the end of his remarkable career.

Expectations remain high in the Balkan nation which, with its population of barely four million, has long punched above its weight at international level.

Runners-up at the 2018 World Cup, Croatia then came third at the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

However, their record is less impressive at the European Championship, given that they have never won a knockout match at the competition.

They also face a tough assignment in Germany in the same group as reigning champions Italy as well as Spain and Albania.

"We have a good chance, but the Euros are as strong as the World Cup. Just look at the teams who qualified," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic told reporters in the capital Zagreb in late May.

"It will be tough," the coach warned. "We raised the bar too high."

Croatia will face off against Spain in Berlin in their opening Group B match on June 15, before playing against Albania in Hamburg and then meeting Italy in Leipzig. 

"I don't want to create pressure, we have to be wise, calm," added Dalic, who will hope Croatia can at least qualify for the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams from the group stage. 

They will be looking for revenge when they take to the pitch against Spain, following their defeat on penalties against the same opponents in last year's UEFA Nations League final.

The tournament comes as Modric continues to negotiate his future on the pitch with Real Madrid, where he will likely stay for another, and possibly last, season.

The star midfielder will turn 39 in September, but remains the driving force behind the Croatian national team.

We will not force anything

Winger Ivan Perisic, who has been on loan in Croatia at Hajduk Split from Tottenham Hotspur, is a source of concern as he recovers from a knee injury.

The 35-year-old has been training with the squad since they decamped to the northern port city of Rijeka in late May to prepare for the tournament.

"We will not force anything. It's a gain for us that he returns to the national team," Dalic said.

Like years past, Croatia will be coming into the tournament with a dominant midfield, which also includes Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic.

Kovacic, along with defender Josko Gvardiol, is entering the tournament fresh off celebrating winning the Premier League title with Manchester City.

Andrej Kramaric, who scored 17 goals in Germany for Hoffenheim this season, will be another key member of the team.

Kramaric, Ante Budimir of La Liga side Osasuna and Dinamo Zagreb's Bruno Petkovic -- who between them netted 53 goals this season -- will provide Croatia with most of their firepower.

The trio is hoping to make up for the lack of a prolific striker that has sometimes held the team back in recent years.

Meanwhile, Dalic's side will also likely be aided by a strong turnout of locally-based supporters in Germany, which is home to a large Croatian community.

"Croatia have already achieved great miracles so far and expecting them to be among the medal winners again could be unrealistic," Croatian sports journalist Dean Bauer told AFP.  

"Still, the team has something more significant than any big player's name. A fantastic unity."