Surprise packages at Euro 2008, Slaven Bilic's side know they'll need to be at their best to progress from Group C. Jonathan Wilson previews Croatia.
Croatia secured a Euro 2012 place with a play-off win over Turkey
ItÃ¢ÂÂs not hard to pinpoint the moment things began to go wrong for Croatia. When Ivan Klasnic put them ahead in the final minute of extra time in their Euro 2008 quarter-final against Turkey, coach Slaven Bilic seemed unstoppable. They would have faced Germany in the semi-final, having already beaten them in the groups. But two minutes into injury time Semih Senturk equalised, and a shattered Croatia lost on penalties.
Recovery has been slow and painful. Niko Kovac had been the unsung hero of that side, providing a platform at the back of midfield, and it was only after he was gone that he was missed. In World Cup qualifying the Croatia back four was left hideously exposed Ã¢ÂÂ England put nine past them in two games. EduardoÃ¢ÂÂs potency had given them an edge and, though they coped well without him in the Euro 2008 finals, his broken leg and subsequent loss Ã¢ÂÂ¨of form cost Croatia. Meanwhile, BilicÃ¢ÂÂs lustre faded as relations with the local media soured following allegations about his personal life.
Others may have quit Ã¢ÂÂ he could easily find Ã¢ÂÂ¨a much better paid job elsewhere Ã¢ÂÂ but Bilic stuck it out and had his reward in qualifying. Luka Modric now plays much deeper, alongside either Ognjen Vukojevic or Tomislav Dujmovic, playmaking from just in front of the back four, and that seems to have given Croatia better balance. TheyÃ¢ÂÂre still not quite in the form of 2007 Ã¢ÂÂ they were pitiful, for instance, in a drab defeat away to Greece, offering little creatively and conceding two cheap goals to set-plays Ã¢ÂÂ but at least there is a sense of progress.
And, vitally, there was a cathartic victory over Turkey in the play-offs. The return of Ivica Olic to the forward line after a lengthy injury gave them a true front-runner, an energetic chaser of lost causes, and that in turn gave respite to the gifted but fragile Mario Mandzukic, who was able to drop off the front line to link with the midfield four. That meant leaving Eduardo and EvertonÃ¢ÂÂs Nikola Jelavic on the bench, which gives some indication of the depth of CroatiaÃ¢ÂÂs attacking options. Croatia went ahead after two minutes in Istanbul and picked off their opponents on the break to win 3-0, leaving them to play out a 0-0 draw back in Zagreb.
Modric sets the tempo, but equally essential for the Croatians is captain Darijo Srna. He tends to play as an attacking right-back for Shakhtar Donetsk but operates in midfield for Croatia, which not only gives them the benefit of his crossing ability and dead-ball expertise, but also provides balance so Bilic can field a more attacking option, such as Niko Kranjcar or Ivan Rakitic, on the left. Or, if he wants a more hard-working midfield, thereÃ¢ÂÂs Danijel Pranjic of Bayern Munich, another attacking full-back who can play in midfield.
Srna's delivery from the right could prove crucial to Croatia
Lesson from qualifyingCroatia need Olic. They may be blessed with technically gifted players but sometimes you need energy and physicality to convert ball retention into goals. He is 32 and far from a regular at Bayern, but stats showed he was the fastest player at Euro 2008 and he gives Ã¢ÂÂ¨Croatia an aspect they otherwise lack.
Strengths Croatia have a wealth of creative options both in midfield and upfront, and in Bilic, an intelligent and charismatic coach whose six years on relatively meagre wages offer an inspirational example of patriotic pride. Modric is one of the best playmakers in the modern game, an imaginative passer whose wit allows him to escape much larger opponents.
WeaknessesThere are serious doubts about the back four. The Modric-Vukojevic pairing does not provide the same cover Kovac once did and Greece exposed just how vulnerable they can be to the crossed ball. Given the leading centre-back candidates Josip Simunic and Gordon Schildenfeld arenÃ¢ÂÂt going to win too many foot races, that seems a major deficiency. Then there is the issue that so many of their players are prone to injury and/or bouts of poor form. If Croatia turn up with a squad at the top of their games they could be a serious threat; if not, theyÃ¢ÂÂll barely be also-rans.
Did you knowÃ¢ÂÂ¦?The red and white checked shirts are derived from the sahovnica (chessboard), a symbol of the Croatian nobility that dates back at least as far as 1499 and possibly to the 10th-century Croatian king Stjepan Drzislav. Nothing to do with restaurant tables at all, then.
ExpertÃ¢ÂÂs viewAleksandar Holiga, FourFourTwo CroatiaÃ¢ÂÂFans and the media lost faith in Slaven BilicÃ¢ÂÂs boys and grew increasingly negative after the failed 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. The squad is being sent off to Poland with very little fanfare, but will be aching to prove the critics wrong. Bilic has too many options upfront and too few at the back, so he usually crams five or even six offensive-minded players into the team, putting emphasis on individual instructions rather than formation. But these things take time and practice Ã¢ÂÂ luckily, they will have enough of both for the first time in four years. If they stay clear of injuries, the Blazers could be on fire once again at the Euros.Ã¢ÂÂ
VerdictDefensive deficiencies likely to be exposed.
Modric is the man to keep Croatia ticking over in possession
Key playerLuka ModricSince joining Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2008, Modric has developed into one of the best players in the Premier League. A fine passer of the ball who also possesses great vision, Modric is CroatiaÃ¢ÂÂs most creative player who will pull the strings in the midfield, even from a deeper position.
The managerSlaven BilicHe has won many admirers for his work as Croatia manager, taking the Vatreni to the quarter-finals of Euro 2008. He likes his teams to play attacking football Ã¢ÂÂ not a problem given where CroatiaÃ¢ÂÂs strengths and weaknesses lie Ã¢ÂÂ and the 43-year-old former West Ham and Everton defender looks destined to one day manage in the Premier League.
How they playCroatiaÃ¢ÂÂs offensive approach shows in their 4-4-2 set-up, with an emphasis placed on quick counter-attacks. They swept aside Guus HiddinkÃ¢ÂÂs Turkey in the play-offs and will be a match for many teams in the tournament. But strikers like Mandzukic and Jelavic will have to be in top form if Croatia are to emulate their quarter-final appearance of 2008.
Euro record(Croatia did not join FIFA and UEFA until 1992) 1996 Quarter-finals2000 DNQ2004 First round2008 Quarter-finals
OddsCroatia are 50/1 to win Euro 2012, while Nikica Jelevic to finish as top scorer with Croatia winning the tournament is 400/1Exclusive Coral/FourFourTwo free bet offer: Bet ÃÂ£30, get ÃÂ£60. More details coral.co.uk/fourfourtwo
FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS Grp A: Poland Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Russia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Greece Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Czech Republic Grp B: Netherlands Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Germany Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Portugal Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Denmark Grp C: Spain Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Italy Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Croatia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Republic of Ireland Grp D: Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ¢ England Ã¢ÂÂ¢ France Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Sweden
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