Something funny happened during Croatia's Euro 2012 campaign. Our expectations were suddenly raised, and the team made Croatian fans around the world proud. Here are a few observations made during the past three games:
– Slaven Bilic made this team into a bona fide unit. They worked hard for each other and defended as a team.
– Ivan Strinic did a great job defending. Not only did he do that but he also provided wonderful service and crossing from the wings.
– Gordon Schildenfeld and Vedran Corluka made up a hell of a centre-back pairing. Tall, strong, winning aerial duels as if they had worked together for ages. Remember, Corluka is a natural right back.
– I was dead wrong about Stipe Pletikosa and I admit it. He couldn't have saved Pirlo's free kick and was stellar against Spain especially. I'll have my crow deep fried.
– Croatia can hang with anyone. We put eight guys back against Spain, time and time again, and should have won the game if not for Ivan Rakitic missing a wide open header. Credit to Iker Casillas for saving that one. We went after the best team in the world without any fear.
– Mario Mandzukic has the killer touch and knows how to finish. Rumour has it that Everton want to pair him with Jelavic. They sure performed well together at the Euros. Anyone else notice how nicely Mandzukic tracks back and defends for a striker?
– Ivan Rakitic needs improvement. His shooting and defensive work rate aside, the lad needs to improve on his passing and ball control.
– Luka Modric has "it". He has the skill and ability, but needs to show up more often in the first half for Croatia. He did brilliantly in the second halves of games during the tournament. He'll look good for Real Madrid next year, at least according to Mate Bilic.
– Something everyone can agree on is that these boys made us all proud and they played their asses off. It's a damn shame we didn't go further. Let's hope Stimac doesn't mess up what Bilic has put in place for the Croatian national team.
Croatia was one Ivan Rakitić header away from not only clinching a spot in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, but dethroning the current Euro and World Cup champions, Spain, all in the blink of an eye. With Italy expected to win against the Irish, Croatia knew they needed a result and had to play a near flawless game against the Spaniards to do so.
The Vatreni held their ground and disabled Spain's flowing ball movement in midfield for the entire first half, applying proper pressure and holding a high line. When balls were played down the flanks and through the middle, it was always met with discipline and physicality. With coach Slaven Bilić starting the match with only one striker in Mario Mandžukić, we can assume that he was ecstatic with the 0-0 halftime score line.
It was then in the 59th minute that Luka Modrić broke free down field and created the best chance of the game (for either team) as he whipped in a cross to a wide open and streaking Ivan Rakitić on the back post. The Sevilla man connected with the header but Real Madrid goalie Iker Casillas made an amazing save to keep the game scoreless. Many have already blamed Rakitić for not doing better on the chance but you have to credit Casillas as well. If he scores on the play, Croatia is surely packing their bags for a quarterfinal tie instead of debriefing before vacation. Bilić would bring in some firepower in the 66' with Nikica Jelavić and Ivan Perišić coming off the bench, but it just would not be.
Vedran Ćorluka was pulled down in the box with no penalty call and Perišić couldn't do better with an open long-range shot on goal. Spain would score in the dying minutes without a response and Croatia would be sent home, on the highest of notes. The team should be proud of their play and know that they hung with the world's best all the way to the end. The confidence this group of players gained from this tournament should translate into big wins during World Cup 2014 qualifying, which starts in September.
Can we finally set concrete expectations for this group of Croatian players after their performance at Euro 2012?
Written by Ante Kvartuč, CroatianSports.com
On Monday, Croatia will take on reigning World and European champions, Spain, with a Euro 2012 quarter-final berth on the line. Croatia control their own fate as a win or 2-2 (or higher) draw against Spain will see the Vatreni into the knockout stages no matter what Italy does against Ireland. Both matches kickoff simultaneously. Croatia also automatically go through if Italy fail to defeat the Irish.
But if you are coach Slaven Bilić, how do you approach this monumental game? It's not every day that a nation of only 4.5 million people have a chance to oust a country of Spain's calibre from a major tournament. On Monday night, in Gdansk, Croatia will have that opportunity.
Do you go for the win and throw everything you got at Spain or play conservative and wait for the opportune time to strike? In my opinion, Croatia have nothing to lose at this point in the tournament and are already playing with house money. They were never favoured to make it through, hell, at one point in qualifying, most Croatian fans thought that reaching Euro was just a dream the way they were playing. Now, the resourceful Croatians find themselves 90 minutes away from finding out who they really are.
If I am Bilić, this is the speech I give to the team prior to taking on Spain:
“Boys, good job thus far. We have one game left in group stage and still control our own destiny. Yes, we have to beat Spain, but what else did you guys come here for? Let’s go play against the best team in the world, beat the best team in the world and shock the entire world all in the same day. Leave it all on the field! We didn’t come here to play three games and go home, we came here to win the whole damn thing!”
Imagine clinching a quarterfinal berth by defeating the world/euro champions. Imagine the confidence they would have the remainder of the tournament. Sure fans can pray for an Irish result, but I would rather win and go through on Croatia's own accord than clinch by default because the Italians couldn’t defeat Ireland.
Our little nation always surprises the big boys, and I think it’s time for another. Why can't 2012 be any different than ’98 v. Germany, ’06-07 v. England (twice) and ’08 v. Germany?
Let Croatia bring the whole house at Spain. It would shock them. Teams give way too much respect to Spain, just like Croatia gave too much respect to Italy in the first half Thursday. This isn't chess boys. Knock ‘em down and knock ‘em down hard! I’m not saying play dirty, just finish your tackles and show them who wants it more. Get inside their heads. Pressure high. Don't stop running. Leave your hearts on the field.
How’s that for tactics?
Go for broke…treat this as a championship game.
There's a contingency plan: If Ireland pulls out a point versus Italy, Croatia go through regardless. That’s the way to play this.
At the end of the day on Monday, the world will know exactly what this crop of Croatians is worth. With a loss, all that will be remembered is a horrific qualifying campaign where Croatia lost to Georgia and was unable to score one goal against the Greeks. Redemption against Turkey in Istanbul and a win versus the worst team at the tournament: Ireland. How much momentum can you keep from that going into World Cup qualifying against arch rivals Serbia and an up-and-coming Belgian side?
But, and this is a BIG but, if Croatia do the unthinkable and defeat Spain, all bets are off and the sky is the limit for these boys the rest of the tournament.
So I ask you: What's there to be scared of when the weight of the world is riding on Spain's shoulders? Croatia are 90 minutes away from dethroning the champs (with an Italy victory) and ending their four-year run of football immortality.
Written by Ante Kvartuč, CroatianSports.com
Croatia could have been the first team to book a spot in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, but at the end of the day, they will have to be happy with a 1-1 draw against Italy. The Azzurri dominated the first half and Croatia were lucky not to be down by multiple goals at halftime.
Referee Howard Webb missed an obvious penalty call as Nikica Jelavić was pulled down in the box. Italy controlled the midfield. Croatia couldn't string more than three passes together.
Pletikosa made two amazing saves as the Croatian defence couldn't keep up with Italian strikers. And then Andrea Pirlo curled in a beautiful free kick over the wall in the 39' to give Italy a 1-0 lead going into halftime.
That was the first half breakdown.
There was a bit more life out of the Croatian side in the second half, stringing together a few more passes, but still not having the core midfield chemistry they had against Ireland. Many long balls were played down field with little impact against the Italian defence.
But in the 72nd minute, it all finally came together for Croatia as defender Ivan Strinić swung in a cross from the sideline that found striker Mario Mandžukić at the far post. Italian defender Georgio Chiellini misjudged the ball as it travelled over his head, and Mandza coolly trapped it and struck home off the inside of the post. Both sides would have a few more half chances but the game would end 1-1 with no one yet booking a quarterfinal berth from Group C.
English referee Howard Webb called a bad game, not allowing a clear penalty on Jelavić in the first half and not allowing proper flow throughout the match, calling a foul on nearly every challenge. Both teams flopped throughout the game but captain Darijo Srna was fortunately not booked for an elbow to the head of Thiago Motta in the second half.
Croatia will be happy with the point heading into their Group C finale vs. Spain on Monday. The Italians should be disappointed, as they were the better team on the day.
-Written by Ante Kvartuč, CroatianSports.com
There he was, heading two beautiful goals into the net against Ireland, putting a dagger into their hopes of winning the game. The 'he' I speak of, is of course, Mario Mandžukić. Mandžukić was a doubt to start the EURO's at forward for Croatia, with most pundits believing that Bilić would instead start Ivica Olić at striker. In an interesting twist, I'll tell you how the two of them are further intertwined. Of course we all know that Olić was injured and Mandzo got his turn to show his attacking skills and made the most of his opportunity.
Currently playing for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, Mandžukić is vastly undervalued as a player and a striker. Firstly, he absolutely torched and tormented the Irish defense as he has also done in the Bundesliga, winning the ball and holding it up until his teammates arrived in support. This is the style of play of top center forwards of old, winning aerial duels and waiting for support to arrive while holding up the ball.
To further reinforce the point of Mandžukić's aerial prowess, one must look no further than the actual goal scoring record in the Bundesliga this past season. Out of a total 12 goals that he scored for Die Wolfe, seven of them were headers. That's a whopping statistic. Not only is he capable with the ball at his feet, but also in the air, and having scored two goals on one of the biggest stages in the world, Mandzo is suddenly a man in demand. Two shots, two goals, 100% conversion rate. His first goal came out of nothing and he showed the world that he can score a goal out of nothing, with Shay Given's goalkeeping aside.
Reverting back to this club, the case is a rather interesting one. Recently, Ivica Olić agreed to a two year deal with Wolfsburg. One would think that this would be a good thing, having two players that played with each other on the national team playing together, now playing together at the same club. Not so if you are Felix Magath, manager of VFL Wolfsburg. Magath decided, even before Olić arrived, that Mandžukić was surplus to what Wolfsburg need. Thus, Olić's arrival further pushed Mandzo out the door. In a cruel twist of fate, his two goals only increased the 14 million pound transfer fee Wolfsburg want, though the player has made no demand to leave the club.
In a way however, this might be a move he deserves. Mandžukić is in the prime of his career, and you better believe a big club is looking at him as a cheaper alternative, to those other expensive French and German players being sought after. But you can bet that as time goes on and the more goals he scores, his price will go up as will his demand. However, for a player that doesn't catch all the headlines, he's surely made a name for himself relatively quickly.
Written by Vedran Ćavara, CroatianSports.com
Slaven Bilic promised a win for Croatia against a (weak) Irish side on Sunday. His promise came through in a 3-1 victory.
There was something different about this Croatia squad on a rainy night in Poznan and it showed immediately after their national anthem, Lijepa Naša. Players didn't just unzip their warm-up jackets and trot to their positions as they did throughout an unimpressive qualifying campaign; they emphatically showed some positive emotion and energy just before the kick-off.
Wolfsburg striker Mario Mandzukic got the Vatreni on the board three minutes into the match with a header from 13 yards out after slipping in the box on a wet pitch. Captain Darijo Srna chipped the ball from the endline and the following header caught Irish ‘keeper Shay Given leaning the wrong way to give Croatia an early 1-0 lead, imitating their start against Turkey in Euro 2012 play-off round. However, the Irish would not be denied as Sean St Ledger equalized in the 19th minute, heading home a free-kick from the left side. Vedran Corluka could not stay with his man and Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa did not come out in time to deny the threat.
Ireland briefly took back the momentum but Nikica Jelavic found himself alone in front of the net in the 43rd minute after the ball was played to him by an Irish defender. The gift pass directly to him was struck into the net, giving Croatia a 2-1 lead heading into half-time. The second half started just as the first one did for Croatia, with Mandzukic heading home, but this time the ball hit the inside of the post and came off the head of Given. It was 3-1 Croatia and they would never look back.
The most impressive part of Croatia's game today was their outside shooting. Dortmund's Ivan Perisic blasted two rockets towards net in the match, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic adding one each of their own. If this continues and Mandzukic keeps receiving service in the air, there's no telling how far this Croatia squad can go in 2012. The Ireland win was the right way to start the tournament, but upcoming games with Italy and Spain will be the true tests.
A win over Italy on Thursday would see Croatia clinch a quarter-final berth.
Croatian striker Ivica Olić is out of Euro 2012 with a ruptured thigh muscle and has been replaced by 24 year-old Dnipro striker Nikola Kalinić, the HNS confirmed on Monday. The MRI on his thigh showed a slight tear which is expected to take between four to six weeks to heal. Olić picked up the injury in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Norway in Croatia's final friendly match before opening up their EURO 2012 campaign against Ireland on June 10th.
"Unfortunately, the injury turned out to be far more serious than the initial examination had suggested and a thorough scan showed a rupture in the right thigh. It came as a shock to everybody, including Olić, because his subjective impression matched initial predictions that it wasn't serious but he will now need up to six weeks to recover," team doctor Zoran Bajtijarević told Croatian media.
Olić, 32, has been part of the Croatian team for the past decade, with appearances in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and the 2004 and 2008 European Championship. The former Dinamo Zagreb star has 78 caps and 15 goals for Croatia. Of the current roster, only Darijo Srna and Eduardo da Silva have scored more goals.
"This is not my first injury of my career. Not a big deal, I will recover within two to three weeks. It happened at the worst time and I could not help the team at the Euro's. I imagined the ideal scenario, to retire from the national team with a good result in the European championship. I have not made a final decision, who knows now. If I have a successful season in Wolfsburg and if I am wanted by the national team...," said Olić.
It sounds like the Ivica Olić story hasn't ended quite yet.