Bilic: It's going to be a bloody hard game with Ireland
Smooth-talking Croatia manager Slaven Bilic will be trying to mastermind Ireland's downfall in Poznanon Sunday. In an exclusive interview, he tells Aleksandar Holiga about his respect for Giovanni Trapattoni, why formations are dying and his belief that Croatia can win Euro 2012.
You have said that Croatia could go "all the way." Do you really mean that?
"You can call me a madman, but I think I'm just being realistic. There are teams which are stronger than us on paper, as well as those who are weaker, again on paper. For the last five years, we have been either among the top 10 teams in the world according to FIFA rankings or very close to that.
"There are only five matches to the final -- if we take each one as it comes, with a right plan and motivation we really could go all the way. I'm saying that because when we take off, it's an explosion!"
You play your first game against Ireland. What kind of match do you expect?
"It will be a tricky match, I can tell you that ... A bloody hard match... I've studied all of their games and their defensive discipline is amazing.
"You dominate the play, you have the ball in possession and you attack, but they just don't give you too many chances to score. It was like that when we played them in a friendly last year. The match ended scoreless. They had similar games against Slovakia and Russia in the qualifiers, too.
"It will be really hard for us to get into one-on-one situations when attacking; we will have to run harder than them, stay compact, fight for each rebound and be really patient.
"We can't afford to lose our nerve, because Ireland can easily hurt you with a single counter-attack through Duff, McGeady, Long or Keane. They can also be quite deadly from set-pieces. How you start is always key to your confidence and self-esteem and Ireland is our big chance, but I'm sure they're saying the same about us."
How has Giovanni Trapattoni improved this Ireland team?
"I admire him for what he has done. He has managed to organise them into a stable system without taking away their passion and their fanaticism -- Great job."
Do you think Trapattoni could surprise you tactically?
"Well, maybe he could by letting his boys play a more open, attacking game -- but that would suit us perfectly."
You were eight when Trapattoni won his first Scudetto as coach. What do you think about his career?
"Oh, what could I think about Trap... He's Mister Calcio! I'm fascinated by his career and if I could achieve half of what he did, then that would be an enormous success.
"But what I find most impressive about him is that, even after all these years, he has never allowed complacency to creep into his mind. He still treats every game like it's his first and only one. Only the true greats are like that."
Trapattoni has sometimes been described as being "slightly mad." Do you think a coach has to have a little madness to be successful?
"Well, some of his more eccentric outbursts may have been premeditated and made to look spontaneous, as he wanted to motivate his players.
"But it's true -- you cannot be completely normal if you want to cope with the pressure that comes with this job. A successful coach has to be complete -- and that includes a slight touch of madness."
How would you describe your relationship with Trapattoni?
"We have a good relationship. We talked several times, he's always open and likes to discuss things. Interestingly enough, he speaks to me in German -- I guess he wants to take the opportunity and practice his language skills."
It seems that, as a strategist, you put emphasis on individual instructions rather than formations. Do you agree?
"My opinion is that formations are slowly dying out and a large number of experts will confirm that. It has become increasingly difficult to mark the movement of the players, with regard to the ball, just by assigning numbers to each line.
"Fluidity is much more important -- you want your team to stay compact, and your lines to remain close to one another, so they can flow over.
"You need to make sure that no gaps emerge and that tends to happen often to teams who play with strict lines. A quality opponent will always find your weak spot and massacre you.
"I will never underestimate the value of individualism and inspiration -- but without a solid system, improvisation is just anarchy. And anarchy can also sometimes bring you a result, but it cannot be a long-term solution."
What is the greatest strength of this Croatia team?
"I'd say togetherness. I love my players, but, realistically speaking, only a few of them are world class. But when we're together, often something clicks and we become much stronger than the sum of our individual qualities."
How crucial is it that Luka Modric is at his best?
"All players have to give top performances if we want success, but obviously everyone expects the most from Luka. He dictates our play and makes others better with his rhythm and passes. He does the same at Spurs -- if he plays well, the team plays well."