Simon Evans: Croatia are honest, direct and tough ... and good enough to give Italy and Spain a fright
CROATIA’S impressive 3-1 win over Ireland at Euro 2012 gave Slaven Bilic's team a head start in Group C and was a refreshing reminder that there is more than one way to play the game well.
The attempt to emulate Barcelona and Spain's success with 'tiki taka', short-passing, rotating midfielders, has become something of a new tactical orthodoxy.
But it is debatable how effective the approach is for teams that lack the quality at the disposal of the style's founders.
Croatia do things differently and their approach could cause some headaches for group favourites Spain and Italy, who drew 1-1 in the earlier match on Sunday.
The character of Croatia's fiery coach Slaven Bilic was evident in the way his team set about attacking the Irish.
They played with passion, energy, toughness and a refreshing directness that is too often lacking in the modern game.
Two goals came via the head of Mario Mandzukic. The opener in the third minute was a looping effort from a loose ball.
Their third goal three minutes into the second half was a more textbook header, the striker generating real power, that struck the post and went in off luckless keeper Shane Given.
Direct football is sometimes a euphemism for a 'long ball' game but Croatia's immediacy is far from aimless and comes with intelligence, control and purpose.
The man who ensured that the waves of attacks didn't simply become blind charges into the Irish defence was crafty midfield playmaker Luka Modric. whose already high stock is surely set to rise further in this tournament.
Modric has the astuteness to feel the tempo of the game and knows when it is the right moment to hold on to possession in midfield and when it is time to feed the livewire strike pairing of Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic.
That was the role played so effectively by Zvonomir Boban in the Croatia team that burst on to the international scene for the first time as an independent nation when they reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup.
There are some key similarities with that Croatia team, which featured Bilic in defence, particularly in the way fullbacks Ivan Strinic and Darijo Srna burst forward to support attacks, at times overwhelming the Irish.
Bilic has clearly been influenced by that team's charismatic coach Miroslav Blazevic, not least in the way he has his players fired up and motivated.
The Italian influence of coach Giovanni Trapattoni on his Ireland side was much less evident.
The 73-year-old achieved qualification for the finals by getting his team to play with more positional awareness and patience, being more willing to draw their opponents in, soak up pressure and then hit them on the counter-attack.
But on Sunday a side made up mainly of players from the lower ranks of England's Premier League and the second tier Championship, reverted to club habits.
Their eagerness lead to some loose passing and a loss of the disciplined shape that Trapattoni has tried to impose.
The battling approach initially offered some promise, with Sean St Ledger's 19th minute header bringing Ireland level, but they never recovered from the hotly contested strike by in-form striker Nikica Jelavic just before halftime.
The Irish were convinced he was in an offside position and, while the decision was a cruel reminder of the injustices of the current law, it turned the game decisively in Croatia's favour.
Jelavic was a constant threat and his movement and instinct will have alerted Spain and Italy, who they play next.
But there was plenty more in this Croatia display to concern the two favourites in the group. They would be wise to prepare for a game played at a tempo neither are comfortable with.