Coach Slaven Bilic
One to Watch Mario Mandzukic
As we approach the summer of 2012 all of our minds, well most of them at least, will turn away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game , I shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists who will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
Croatia is our destination, as we continue profiling the teams that will be taking part in next summer’s European Championships. The Independent State of Croatia played nineteen international friendly matches between 1940 and 1944. At the end of the Second World War however, Croatia became part of the new state of Yugoslavia and, as such, did not field an independent team again for almost half a century.
The modern Croatian team was established in 1990, and their first competitive matches were in qualification for Euro 96, having been recognised by FIFA in 1993. Since then Croatia have had tremendous success on the international stage for such a small country, qualifying for three out of four World Cup Finals, only missing out in South Africa 2010, and amazingly, finishing third at their first attempt at France 98.
As far as European competition goes, the country has had similar success. Croatia have qualified for the European Championships four times, only failing to make it to Euro 2000, and have made it to the quarter finals twice. in 1996. The first of these quarter final appearances came in the Croat’s first ever tournament, Euro 96 held in England, and it introduced the world to the talents of players such as Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban. They also made the knock-out stages in 2008.
Much of Croatia’s early success was built on the backs’ of a “Golden Generation” of superbly talented players who all came through to represent their country at senior level at around the same time. Under coach Miroslav Blazovic, this generation of players which included the likes of Davor Suker, Goran Vlaovic, Zvonimir Boban and current coach, Slaven Bilic, represented Croatia at Euro 96 and World Cup 98.
At Euro 96, held in England, Croatia, like the Czech Republic, were playing in their first major tournament since becoming a sovereign state and, like the Czech republic, they performed excellently, surprising many by qualifying from the group stage. Croatia defeated, defending champions, Denmark 3-0 on the way, before losing to Germany, the eventual winners, in the quarter final.
France 98 saw Croatia build on the impressive start made two years previously, and consolidate their position as real force to be reckoned with. Victories over Japan and Jamaica were enough to put Croatia into the knock-out stages. Once there, victory over Romania set up a quarter final tie against, the heavily fancied, Germany.
Remarkably, Croatia won the match at a canter, stunning the Germans with a terrific display which allowed them to run out 3-0 winners and gain revenge for their elimination from Euro 96. The Croatians were finally beaten 2-1 in the semi-final by, hosts and eventual tournament winners, France. However, victory over Holland in the third place play-off ensured a bronze medal for the young nation and, the brilliant, Davor Suker took home the Golden Boot.
Since the heady heights of the late nineties, Croatia have done reasonably well, qualification has usually been achieved, missing out only twice, however group stage elimination has usually followed. The exception came at Euro 2008 under current coach Slaven Bilic. Having qualified ahead of England, who they defeated at Wembley during the campaign, Croatia went on a run to the quarter finals, where they lost a penalty shoot-out to Turkey.
The run however, included victories against Austria, Poland and Germany and was the first time Croatia had taken maximum points from the group matches of a major tournament. Failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup Finals was a surprise, however, coach Bilic vowed to stay on and take Croatia forward.
The current Croatia squad contains some fantastic players, Luka Modric, Eduardo Silva, Darijo Srna (c), to name but a few. They are extremely compact without the ball, making them very difficult to break down, and play a pressing game, giving their opponents very little time on the ball. When they do have the ball Croatia play an incredibly quick, counter attacking game, which relies on one and two touch play, pace and clinical finishing.
Some vastly experienced players are complimented by a promising crop of younger players coming through, such as Ivan Perisic of Borussia Dortmund and Ivan Raketic of Sevilla. A player to look out for next summer is, rugged striker, Mario Mandzukic currently of Bundesliga side Vfl Wolfsburg. The hitman has averaged roughly a goal every two games throughout his club career, he also scored twice in qualifying and got the second goal in Croatia’s 0-3 play-off first leg victory in Turkey. A robust striker who’s good in the air and on the ground, Mandzukic has been used well by Bilic who seems to know how to get the best from his players.
A strong forward line which includes Ivica Olic of Bayern Munich, also features Everton’s Nikica Jelavic. He’s another one to look out for in the summer, although viewers of the English Premier League may already be aware of the threat he poses. Jelavic has been a revelation at Everton since arriving from Glasgow Rangers in January. Having scored a hatful in Scotland, some doubted whether his skills would be instantly transferable to a much stronger league. These doubts were misplaced, with Jelavic racking up nine goals in thirteen appearances, many of these dispatched with one touch.
Croatia could prove to be Euro 2012’s dark horses, their qualifying run was impressive, winning seven out of ten games, garnering 22 points, they were disappointed not to qualify by right. A comprehensive victory in their play-off with Turkey showed the strength that they possess and any team that underestimates their quality will surely pay the price.
Bilic will leave his post as national team manager at the end of Euro 2012 but, rather than unsettling his squad, it is likely to bind it even more closely together as they push to achieve something special under him one last time. Quality players with tournament experience, a strong group ethic united behind a manager who commands respect and a distinctive style of play which suits the attributes of the team, all combine to make Croatia a very dangerous proposition.
Drawn in a very tough group (the toughest after group b), comprising defending champions Spain, a confident, new look Italy and an Ireland side that, under Giovanni Trapattoni, have rediscovered the knack of playing above themselves and gaining unlikely results, Croatia have got their work cut out. However, if they can beat Ireland in their opening game, they can give themselves a great chance of going through and, should they reach the quarter finals, with the players that they possess, I don’t think any side would fancy coming up against them.
Fans image by the queen of subtle aka jenni konrad. Modric image by apasciuto.