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England v Croatia

A dish best served cold?

September 8, 2009
By David Davutovic

It is almost two years since Croatia subjected England to a rain-sodden night of ignominy at Wembley Stadium - a 3-2 defeat and the subsequent failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

GettyImagesScott Carson's error was just one of the low points of England's catastrophic defeat to the Croats in 2007.
The England fall-out resulted in the sacking of Steve "The Wally with the brolly" McClaren, subsequently replaced by Fabio Capello and the Italian has since masterminded a hitherto flawless qualifying campaign that could see England confirm World Cup qualification with a win at Wembley.

Conversely, Croatia have endured a stuttering campaign after the devastating quarter-final exit to Turkey at Euro 2008.

Their confidence was dented further just three months after that penalty-shoot out loss, when they suffered their first competitive defeat at home - a 4-1 drubbing from England in Zagreb.

A year has passed and Croatia appeared to be shaping up beautifully ahead of the rematch at Wembley, until disaster struck. If they feared the affects of Luka Modric's injury, they were confirmed on Saturday night in the unconvincing 1-0 qualifying win over Belarus.

The Croats hung on by their finger-nails at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium after Ivan Rakitic's deflected 24th-minute goal, with stand-in keeper Vedran Runje - replacing the injured Stipe Pltikosa - producing several crucial saves late on.

New Tottenham signing Niko Kranjcar deputised for Modric in central midfield and while he was involved in the Rakitic goal, the Modric-less Croats lacked spark and creativity. Not to mention the fact that he is their equal top scorer this campaign with three goals.

If there was one other player Bilic did not want to lose, it was Vedran Corluka, But the defender's brainstrom and red card against Belarus will see him seated alongside Spurs team-mate Modric in the Wembley stands.

Bilic was believed to be considering playing the versatile Corluka at left back - Croatia's problem position - and dropping Darijo Srna to right back. His suspension now leaves Bilic with a massive headache, with Croatia desperate to avoid a repeat of Zagreb, when the blistering speed of Theo Walcott tore them to bits in the 4-1 win.

The result came via some shrewd tactical groundwork by Mr Capello, who identified left back Danijel Pranjic as Croatia's achilles heel and Walcott as the man to expose him. The Arsenal winger repaid that faith by scoring a hat-trick.

While Walcott is injured, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips are similar types, in terms of causing problems with their speed. Despite his defensive frailties, Pranjic is good going forward, which is why he might be pushed up to the left wing, where he, ironically, has the ability to cause England right back Glen Johnson headaches.

Trabzonspor defender Hrvoje Cale (two caps) and Red Bull Salzburg's Nikola Pokrivac (seven caps) are being considered to fill the left back role, both of whom are worryingly inexperienced. Bilic is apparently toying with the idea of playing two defensive-minded midfielders, with Genoa's Ivan Juric being considered to start alongside Ognjen Vukojevic.

Kranjcar may then start on the right (or the left instead of Pranjic, and Rakitic on the right), with Rakitic starting on the bench, Bilic eager to leave an attacking midfield ace up his sleeve along with strikers Mladen Petric and Dinamo Zagreb's Mario Mandzukic, who scored the consolation against England.

The only others absentees, from a team which has remained virtually untouched in recent years, are the Kovac brothers.

Bilic has struggled to replace the recently retired Niko Kovac, whose influence was understated. The former captain worked tirelessly and selflessly as the midfield anchor, liberating the likes of Modric, Kranjcar and Srna, while he had a knack of scoring crucial goals. Injured defender Robert Kovac, whose former clubs include Bayern Munich, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, has been the lynchpin of a defence which has been the cornerstone of the national team in recent years. It would however be foolish to write Croatia off, and the sluggish performance against Belarus should not necessarily serve as an entrée to Wednesday's sumptuous main course.

The "Vatreni" have a history of struggling against mediocre or lesser opposition, only to turn it on against the big guns - the 2002 World Cup was a case in point, with a win over Italy sandwiched between losses to Mexico and Ecuador, while they beat Germany at Euro 2008.

Bilic's currency was at an all-time high after the win at Wembley, though it did dip slightly after the 4-1 loss - Croatia's first competitive home defeat. Though a relatively inexperienced coach, Bilic handled himself with aplomb after the loss, accepting full responsibility for the result.

He wears his heart on his sleeve and once again expect to see him pacing up and down the touchline, riding the emotional rollercoaster together with his players - in stark contrast to the normally pensive Capello.

Croatia's almost certain to adopt the 4-4-2 formation, possibly with one of the strikers dropping deep in the early stages.

But don't expect the Bilic-led Croatia to go into its shells. One must only cast their mind back to their last visit to Wembley - having already qualified for the European Championships and scores deadlocked late in the game after a Crouch equaliser, Croatia could have settled for a point.

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic
GettyImages / HrvojePolanCroatia coach Slaven Bilic has a series of tactical dilemmas to solve.
Instead Bilic, went to the bench and brought on striker Mladen Petric, who scored the 77th minute winner. The stakes are much higher but his philosophy remains the same.

In Kovac's absence, Zenit St Petersburg defender Ivica Krizanac slotted in alongside Josip Simunic in the centre while Vukojevic is Bilic's preferred holding midfielder.

Arsenal striker Eduardo could be their x-factor. He was sorely missed by Croatia while rehabilitating from the horrific leg break, and together with Bayern Munich striker Ivica Olic, will pose a threat for John Terry and his defence.

The calls for Capello to replace Emile Heskey with the red-hot Jermain Defoe are growing louder by the minute, and Defoe would definitely pose problems with his pace.

However the target-man position is fundamental to Capello's gameplan and the critics have forgotten a crucial fact -Heskey, Aston Villa striker, caused Croatia's defence all sorts of problems in Zagreb.

Capello certainly hasn't, nor has Croatia, whose qualification hopes will be on tenterhooks if they fail to at least gain at point.

Croatia has never failed to qualify for a World Cup since gaining its independence in 1991 and this talented generation of players will be determined not to create history for the wrong reasons.