Croatia spoil Kosovo's big night; Bosnia lack courage in loss to Belgium
Thursday night was supposed to be the best night in the lives of Kosovo football fans. A month ago, after years of battle to join FIFA and UEFA and start playing competitive football, they surprised Finland away and captured their first ever point.
It was the result that filled them with confidence, and when the Croats announced that they were coming to Shokdra -- the city in Albania where Kosovo were forced to play their home match because none of the stadiums in their country meet FIFA requirements -- without their major stars, the hosts started to believe they were capable of creating a miracle.
It's not like Croatia were happy to be the first team ever to play Kosovo away. Ante Cacic, their heavily criticised manager, faced a series of injuries in the preparation for the Kosovo match. He had to change the spine of the team after he lost Real Madrid star and Croatia captain Luka Modric, as well as Ivan Rakitic from Barcelona, Dejan Lovren from Liverpool and Marko Pjaca of Juventus.
But, all the fear of euphoric hosts disappeared after just six minutes, when Mario Mandzukic scored his first competitive goal for Croatia in 16 months. Kosovo's build-up to the match was all about history and national pride, but this was not enough against the Croats. Mandzukic completed a hat trick after 35 minutes, and what was supposed to be a historic night for the hosts turned into a routine win for Croatia. Mario Mitrovic from HNK Rijeka, who made his competitive debut, added one in the second half, before Ivan Perisic and Nikola Kalinic wrapped up a safe 6-0 win.
Kosovars are trying to stay positive, this was their big night and even this loss couldn't ruin it.
"It's not the end of the world", said Kosovo defender Leart Paqarada. "We entered this match full of emotions, made some crucial mistakes, Croatia was too good and just used that. Of course, this loss hurts, but we are going to keep our heads up and continue to improve."
The Croats, on the other hand, are hoping that this performance against much weaker opposition will not create a false image for Cacic. They are travelling to Tampere now to play Finland, but this time with an open hand; Cacic was able to surprise Kosovars with his selection and tactics without his best players, but now that element of surprise is gone.
Bosnia-Herzegovina manager Mehmed Bazdarevic counted on the same element of surprise against Belgium in Brussels on Friday, but his setup turned out to be wrong. Roberto Martinez's side struggled with injuries, with Kevin De Bruyne and Vincent Kompany both being sidelined, but Belgium still looked impressive against the confused Bosnians.
For Bazdarevic, this was the second visit to Brussels in two years; the two teams shared a group in Euro 2016 qualifiers, when Belgium celebrated a 3-1 win at home. For the first time since his appointment -- actually, for the first time in six years -- Bosnia-Herzegovina played in a 3-5-2 system, with both Vedad Ibisevic and Edin Dzeko up front.
However, this created havoc in the defensive end for the visitors, and that resulted in unfortunate own goal by Emir Spahic after 26 minutes. Just two minutes later, Dries Mertens stole a ball from surprise debutant Mato Jajalo and passed to Eden Hazard, who easily doubled Belgium's lead. After that, Bosnia's game plan fell to pieces and it was one-way traffic that could have easily yielded a more lopsided result than the 4-0 scoreline.
"We failed, all of us, starting with me," said Bazdarevic after the match, and he couldn't be closer to the truth. "We did not show enough fighting spirit, enough aggressiveness, no courage at all and we made too many mistakes with basic things."
Later in the mixed zone, the atmosphere was the same, players admitting this was one of their worst performances in while. But, they promised to show their true face on Monday when they play Cyprus at home. It's not like they can be calm before the match against the outsiders; they opened their campaign for Euro 2016 losing 2-1 to Cyprus at home.
Teams from the Balkans often have issues with motivation against "weaker" opposition; too much self-esteem was never a good thing for the teams from the region. However, the Serbs changed their attitude for the better and routinely won their first away match in this campaign, beating Moldova 3-0.
It was Filip Kostic who opened the scoring, while Branislav Ivanovic and Dusan Tadic added their names to the score sheet in 37th and 59th minutes, respectively. Serbia were far from impressive, but they did leave the impression of playing just enough and saving fuel for a much more difficult Sunday match. Hyped Austria are coming to Belgrade, and the team hopes they'll have much bigger support than was the case against Republic of Ireland last month, when only 7,896 witnessed the 2-2 draw.
"The early goal was decisive," said Ivanovic, who scored his 12th goal in 89 appearances, to Serbian media after the match. "After that we were in control and played good enough for the win. But, what I hope is that we made a step forward in getting people to trust us again, to come and support us in the future. Now we are turning our focus to Austria; it's one of the best teams in the group and we are aware of the stakes, but the only thing I can promise is that we are going to do our best."
Saša Ibrulj is a Bosnian freelance journalist who splits his time between Mostar and Stockholm. He contributes to The Guardian, ESPN, The Blizzard, Josimar and others. You can follow him on Twitter @sasaibrulj.