Croatia: Genuine contenders
Underestimate Croatia at your peril. Just ask the English.
In reaching the 2008 European Championship finals Croatia not only brought about the end of Steve McClaren's brief tenure as England coach but also continued the Balkan state's remarkable run of footballing success which dates back to their independence from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The Croatian national team are unbeaten in competitive matches at home since 1994, an impressive record which has seen them qualify for the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups as well as the European Championships in 1996, 2004 and now 2008.
Croatia's best showing at a European Championships came in their debut tournament, Euro '96. Under the management of Miroslav Blazevic, Croatia topped their qualification group and secured progress beyond the group stages with victories over Turkey and Denmark; but a final group game defeat to Portugal set up a quarter-final against Germany, a game the eventual champions won 2-1.
At the 1998 World Cup, again under the stewardship of Blazevic, Croatia enjoyed their best ever showing at an international tournament, surprising many observers to finish third in a competition they had never previously contested as an independent nation.
Former Croatian international defender Slaven Bilic took over in 2006 and proved to be something of a revelation in his first campaign as national team manager, winning nine of his 12 Euro 2008 qualifiers, including a memorable final day 3-2 victory at Wembley which secured top spot in the group and ended England's hopes of reaching the finals in Austria and Switzerland.
The only defeat the Croatians suffered came against Macedonia in their penultimate game. However, the result, a 2-0 defeat, mattered little because of Israel's victory over Russia in a game taking place at the same time; news of Israel's victory and therefore Croatia's qualification reached the players on the pitch who eased off the throttle, but were soon forgiven.
Two credible 0-0 draws against Russia, the other team to qualify from group E, completed Bilic and Croatia's impressive record.
In fact such has been Croatia's progress under the 39-year-old that many leading European clubs have been alerted to Bilic's talents.
Aware of their manager's rising stock the Croatian FA have managed to tie their manager to a new two-year deal, though reports of a €1-million-a-year paycheque have been denied with the Croatian FA's general secretary Zorislav Srebric Srebric revealing: 'We're not in a position to offer that money to anyone.' Lucky then that before agreeing the deal Bilic stated his desire to stay put by saying: 'I will sign anything, money isn't important.'
So, what chance do they stand at this summer's tournament? Well, having qualified so strongly and boasting so many quality players, Bilic will be disappointed with anything less than a place in the quarter-finals; and having been drawn into group B alongside co-hosts Austria, as well as Poland and 2006 World Cup semi-finalists Germany, achieving this aim is not unlikely.
Germany will represent Croatia's main threat; Poland and particularly Austria should be brushed aside with relative ease. In fact, with Germany opening their campaign against Poland and Croatia against Austria, by the time Croatia take on Germany in Klagenfurt on June 12 both teams should have 3 points already chalked-up and will view the game as the showdown for top spot in Group B.
Bilic's preparations suffered a severe blow on February 23rd when Arsenal striker Eduardo, the player who scored an impressive 10 goals for Croatia in the qualifying period, suffered a double compounded fracture and dislocated ankle to his left leg, an injury which ended the player's season and all hopes of leading Croatia's goal charge at Euro 2008.
Soon after the injury Bilic extended to Eduardo a place at the tournament as a non-playing member of the team. It was a nice touch and will help maintain team morale, but it could be an invitation Eduardo might regret accepting. Being there but not able to kick a ball in anger will be a frustrating experience for the 25-year-old.
Despite being robbed of Eduardo's goals, however, Croatia will still be a real handful being as they able to call on players boasting the quality of captain Niko Kovac and winger Niko Krancjar, as well as the youthful dynamism of midfielder Luka Modric and defender Vedran Corluka.
Croatia will hope that Modric, born in the coastal city of Zadar, will be able to help share the goal-scoring burden following the injury to Eduardo.
Versatility is one of Krancjar's keys assets and that could prove vital to Croatia. A gifted left winger, the Portsmouth man is also capable of playing in a more central position, but such is his pace, comfort on the ball and devastating shot that he could be deployed as a second striker in a 4-4-2 formation.
In that variation one of either Danijel Pranjic or the lively Ivica Olic would be able to deputise on the left, while first choice right winger Darijo Srna will surely retain his place by virtue of his proven ability, despite the talented Jerko Leko and Ognjen Vukojevic waiting on the sidelines.
In the striking department the experience of Mladen Petric will be countered by the youngsters, with the likes of Igor Budan, who has just four caps to his name, and Croatian under-21 team star Nikola Kalinic making strong claims for inclusion in Bilic's first-team.
The Croatians begin their European Championships against co-hosts Austria in Vienna on June 8th, next comes the crunch game against Germany in Klagenfurt on June 12th, with Bilic's final group stage game coming against Poland again in Klagenfurt on June 16.