Euro 2012: Croatia Team Preview
The Republic of Ireland play their first Euro 2012 match this evening in Poznan against Croatia. GreenScene previews the Irish opposition.
Since joining UEFA in 1993, Croatia have qualified for every European Championships, with the exception of Euro 2000. They missed out on the Belgium-Netherlands tournament after coming third in qualifying behind Yugoslavia and Ireland. The Croats reached the Quarter Finals in 1996 and 2008, and finished in third place at the 1998 World Cup in France thanks to goals from Davor Šuker. They also missed out on the 2010 World Cup, but reached Euro 2012 thanks to a 3-0 aggregate win over Turkey in the playoffs. Croatia were a first seed for the Euro 2012 qualifiers, and were drawn in Group F alongside Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia, and Malta. In qualifying, they drew and lost to Greece who topped the group, but more surprisingly, struggled against Georgia, who scored a last minute winner in Tblisi and took the lead in Split before the Croats came back to win 2-1. Niko Kranjčar was their top scorer in qualifying with four goals, and naturalised Croatian Eduardo da Silva was the best of the strikers with three.
Ireland v Croatia Match History
Like Ireland, Croatia are one of the few teams in the tournament to utilise a 4-4-2 formation. Stipe Pletikosa, who made just one appearance during his year at Tottenham Hotspur, is an experienced goalkeeper with 91 caps, but often struggles with high balls into the area. Croatia deploy a straight back four with Spurs defender Vedran Ćorluka playing 11 qualifiers at left full-back. Corluka has shaken off a hamstring injury, and should start against Ireland. Ivan Strinić or Danijel Pranjić could be in line to replace Corluka if he is not fit, as both played 8 qualifiers, and Pranjic can play at full-back or left-wing. Dinamo Zagreb’s 23-year-old Domagoj Vida is Slaven Bilic’s preferred right-back, after coming into the side for the last 2 group games and playing both playoff matches. Neither first choice full-back should roam forward too often, but Corluka has three goals to his name at international level, the most recent coming in the May friendly against Estonia from a set-piece which found Corluka in the box. Josip Šimunić is the most capped player in the squad, and is five goals shy of 100 caps. The Australian-born defender isn’t the quickest, but is a very confident centre-back. Gordon Schildenfeld only played four qualifiers, but is expected to partner Simunic in the middle of defence. Strinic can also play in the centre, and is an adequate replacement for Schildenfeld.
Croatia’s four-man midfield isn’t as rigid as Ireland’s, with one defensive central midfielder and an attacking midfielder encouraged to get forward often. 31-year-old Tomislav Dujmović of Zaragoza was a late starter for Croatia, making his debut in 2009, but should edge out Ognjen Vukojević of Dynamo Kyiv. Dujmovic will sit back to help out defence, shown by the fact that he is yet to score in 18 appearances. Tottenham’s Luka Modric will be Croatia’s main man in the middle, and his vision and technical ability offer much needed creativity going forward. He played ten of Croatia’s qualifiers, as did international captain Darijo Srna, who will play on the right. The Shakhtar Donetsk wideman will retreat back if needed, but is good when marauding forward and is a danger when cutting in – he has 19 goals in 90 international appearances, with some coming from free-kicks. One of the Ivans will start on the left, with Borussia Dortmund’s Ivan Perišić probably favoured over Ivan Rakitić of Sevilla. Perisic is more of a traditional winger for his national team, while Rakitic tends to play inside and could be a replacement for Modric in the middle. Modric’s clubmate Niko Kranjčar is likely to be left on the bench, despite having 71 caps to his name. The attacking midfielder will be a dangerous commodity when introduced late on.
Slaven Bilic has two strong forwards up front, and with Ivica Olić forced out of Euro 2012 through injury, in-form Everton frontman Nikica Jelavić is likely to partner Mario Mandžukić in attack. Mandzukic scored two group goals and one in the qualifying playoff, playing in all but one of Croatia’s games. Former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva was the usual man to accompany him onto the pitch, but recently Bilic has favoured Olic and has said that Jelavic will get the nod in his place against Ireland. Eduardo has 23 goals in 45 games, while Jelavic has yet to find form at international level, with just 2 in 19. Nikola Kalinić was a late call-up for Olic, but should remain on the bench.
Slaven Bilić was one of Croatia’s most popular international players. The defender played 44 internationals for his country, scoring three times, and was in Croatia’s Euro 96 and 1998 World Cup squads. A fan favourite in England during his time at West Ham United and Everton, the 43-year-old is known for his charm as well as his output with rock band Rawbau. After retiring as a player in 2001, he took the reins at hometown club Hadjuk Split before taking over as the Croatian under-21 manager. He narrowly missed out on qualification for the Euro U21 Championship in 2006, losing to Serbia and Montenegro in a playoff after topping a group containing Hungary, Bulgaria and Sweden. This impressed Hrvatski Nogometni Savez (Croatian FA) chiefs enough for him to replace Zlatko Kranjčar as international boss. Bilic guided Croatia to Euro 2008, winning all three games in Group B, but losing to Turkey on penalties in the quarter-finals after two late extra-time goals. Euro 2012 will be his last stint as Croatia boss, as he has accepted a position at Lokomotiv Moscow after the tournament.
The Key Players
Luka Modrić was Tottenham Hotspur’s record purchase for £16.5 million back in 2008, but has probably doubled his value since then with many tremendous performances in midfield for the Premier League side. Juande Ramos wasted Modric’s talents by having him perform a more defensive role in the middle, but since Harry Redknapp took over at White Hart Lane, Modric has been used in much more advanced role, often operating just behind the striker, and even out wide. Modric has great awareness on the pitch, and can open up a game with his pinpoint long passes, often bringing Tottenham or Croatia’s widemen into the game. Will be crucial to any success Croatia have in Poland.
All Croatia’s wealth seems to be in midfield, with captain Darijo Srna their other key man. He has been with Shakhtar Donetsk since 2003, helping them lift the UEFA Cup in 2009, captaining the side in the final, and providing the pass for the winning goal. Two seasons ago, he helped Shakhtar to the Champions League quarter final, and was named in the Team of the Year thanks to his creativity on the right, setting up five goals in the competition. Srna is a fantastic crosser of the ball, and will look to pick out tall forwards Mandzukic and Jelavic. He is also Croatia’s set-piece taker, and can fire them in from outside the area.
Mario Mandžukić will play just off Kalinic up front, but is still a goal threat, hitting 1 in every 2 with Dinamo Zagreb, which earned him an €8 million move to VfL Wolfsburg back in 2010. He had a decent first season in the Bundesliga, but improved this year with a tally of 11 in 26. He was also prolific in qualifying, netting against Georgia, Latvia, and Turkey, and has 5 goals in 27 internationals. He’s nimble with the ball at his feet and good in the air, so could cause trouble if Srna and Perisic supply him with good crosses.
The Notable Absentees
15 goal Ivica Olić is the major absentee for Croatia, as he was sure to start alongside Mandzukic. He’ll join up with his teammate at VfL Wolfsburg next year after signing from Bayern Munich at the end of the season. Found himself down the pecking order at the Allianz Arena, but still scored twice in five games to help Bayern reach the Champions League final. Had 7 in 10 European games two years ago, including a stunning hat-trick against Lyon. Is a wonderful finisher and will be a big loss for Slaven Bilic.
Lyon defender Dejan Lovren appeared in five qualifiers, even scoring against Malta, but an achilles injury means that his misses Euro 2012. A tall centre-back, he’s good in the air, but would not have offered greater speed than Croatia’s current central pairing.
Midfielder Jerko Leko has 59 caps for Croatia, but did not play a minute of Euro 2012 qualifying. He’s probably best known for being the player that wasn’t allowed come on at Euro 2008 with Croatia trying to hold onto their late lead over Turkey. The fourth official wouldn’t let Bilic make a change and Semih Şentürk scored a 121st minute goal to take the game to penalties.