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Friday, June 20, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: June 21, 5:33 PM UK
Croatia must learn lesson of cruel fate

Dale Johnson

It was a game that promised so much. It seemed to have delivered very little yet it ultimately resulted in a twist of true drama.

Croatia, with a 100 per cent record and tipped to reach the final, had become used to being in the lead during games while Turkey had exhibited such a never-say-die attitude in their escape from Group A that a classic seemed to be on the cards.

Turkey, eventually, kept their part of the bargain but when Croat substitute Ivan Klasnic headed in on 119 minutes it seemed a man who has come back from two kidney operations had written the headlines. But, never, ever write off Turkey may well be the motto of this tournament.

Semih Senturk, himself introduced from the bench, smashed home an equaliser with the last kick of extra-time to crush Croatian belief.

A match which had previously been bereft of quality and guile, never mind goals or chances, had suddenly erupted. If there was ever a game which did not indicate such a grandstand finish, this was it.

And neither do Turkey deserve to be in the semi-finals. Granted, they were riddled with injuries and suspensions, but they reverted to Greece's trademarked brand of anti-football for almost 120 minutes. A footballing spectacle it was not.

Perhaps Turkey had spent most of the week practicing penalties. It certainly looked like they had. Croatia certainly hadn't. Misses from Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mladen Petric lacked quality and composure. Arda Turan, Semih and Hamit Altinop looked totally at ease as Turkey completed a 3-1 shootout victory.

If any team can celebrate it may well be Germany. The Turks lost another three players to suspension - Arda Turan, Tuncay Sanli and Emre Asik - for the semi-final next week in Basle while key striker Nihat Kahveci limped off with what it is hoped is cramp. They will surely find it more difficult to put up a rearguard action against Joachim Loew's side.

Turkey only just survived the suspension of Volkan. Rusty Rustu Recber, as a 35-year-old veteran of 117 caps, may have appeared an able deputy on paper but his best days are clearly well behind him. It was only a matter of time before he finally gifted Croatia a goal. It may have taken 119 minutes, but his safari walkabout to meet Modric left the defence exposed and a simple header for Klasnic.

Turkey's decision to adopt such a defensive style had seemed confusing considering they made the better start to the match, even if they didn't manage to trouble Stipe Pletikosa in the Croatia goal.

Perhaps the adventurous approach was a riposte to coach Fatih Terim, who had remarked that falling behind to Switzerland and the Czech Republic in their previous two matches had come as no surprise. Whichever motives lay behind the attacking enterprise, it didn't last long.

Croatia were soon out of ideas too. Much the better side, the old rule about taking your chances when you're on top was perfectly presented. For ten minutes they probed Rustu's goal without success, with Modric pulling the strings in the centre of the park.

Ivica Olic was the real villain, somehow hitting the bar from four yards out with Rustu nowhere to be seen before Niko Kranjcar headed the rebound over.

And that was that for some time to come. Turkey shut up shop, and Croatia found breaking them down all the more difficult. Mehmet Topal may have fired a superb shot inches wide just before the break yet Turkey didn't have another shot of any note until the 84th minute.

Even the atmosphere died among the fervent Turkish and Croatian fans packed inside the Ernst-Happel Stadion. There was the odd flare but little flair to complement it. The tournament organisers' decision to play Robbie Williams' 'Let Me Entertain You' at the end of 90 minutes was ironic to say the least.

What seemed likely to be the highlight of extra-time was a raucous display of chanting from both sets of fans, as the players struggled to rise to the billing. Until that unbelievable crescendo took the breath away.

For Slaven Bilic, so close to the semi-finals after reaching the last four of the World Cup as a player in 1998, not all is lost with a young side capable of further improvement.

Bilic spent much of the build-up to this game trying to deflect the fact that, perhaps for the first time in a major tournament, Croatia were having to deal with the tag of favourites. Perhaps he protested too much.

With just one tournament victory since finishing third in 1998 the reluctance to consider them contenders was understandable. But Bilic's Croatia is a different proposition. Organised, united, skilful and above all possesing the ability to win games - even without Eduardo, their top scorer in qualifying - they had begun to look the real deal. But in Vienna they met a different foe, a team which didn't want to play ball.

Teams have to answer the real questions when they face expectation. The same can be said of Portugal, who were predicted to come out on top of Germany in the first quarter-final.

Just like Portugal, Croatia failed to deliver. Perhaps the decision of both nations to rest so many players in the last group game may have been a contributing factor.

The level of expectation has not only been raised in the media, but within the Croatian people too. The fledgling footballing nation which has come so far since independence was declared in 1991 was whipped into a frenzy by the performance of a manager the fans know is one of their own.

Reports suggested that 100,000 people would make the 400km journey from Zagreb to Vienna. Going by the number of chequered shirts on the streets of the Austrian capital that was a conservative estimate. Such was the dominance of their colours that it was difficult to spot a Turkish shirt pre-match.

Meeting Turkey at this stage should have added to the fairytale. It was against Turkey that Croatia played their first ever tournament match at the City Ground in Nottingham at Euro '96. Bilic was in the team, along with two members of his coaching staff - assistant Aljosa Asanovic and Robert Prosinecki. And the manager of Turkey was a certain Fatih Terim.

Victory would have completed the cycle for Croatia. But they were not ready for that step.

With Bilic, a mere 39, committed to stay as coach until the 2010 World Cup, there is the stability to build for the next campaign. Though the defence contain the plus-30 likes of Robert Kovac, Josep Simunic and Dario Simic, a veteran from Euro 96, only one player from the side's midfield and attack, 36-year-old captain Niko Kovac, will hang his boots up after the tournament.

It's a squad which may be yet to reach its peak, surely reason for Bilic to delay heading into club management for another two years at least. He has allegedly turned down overtures from former club West Ham United.

Bilic may be downcast after Vienna, but he can look upon this team as a work in progress. Croatia can come back in two years' time a stronger and much wiser team.

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