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