Monday 19 March 2018

Euro 2012: Modric to pull strings but defence is Croatia's weak link


On Monday night, as he watched another Irish scoreless draw, Slaven Bilic said only good things about his opponents and suggested his side were the ones suffering.

The injury to Ivica Olic was a "disaster," he said. If it was, it was one Croatia have been able to adapt to. Olic missed most of Croatia's pretty uninspiring qualification campaign but returned for their comprehensive victory over Turkey in the play-off.

Some Croats take a different view. They admire Olic's tenacity but think the team is technically better without him.

Croatians have been swept up in the enthusiasm for Nikica Jelavic, who will start this evening. His six months at Everton excited the country but he has only scored twice, once on his debut, for Croatia, even if that is in part because he has rarely been trusted in the side.

Croatian journalist Daliber Keler would like Eduardo, the second-highest goalscorer in their history, to start alongside Marion Mandzukic and thinks the team is improved with Olic's absence. Few in Croatia would agree. Bilic was keen on Monday night in Budapest to talk up Ireland and dismiss the suggestions he had been scathing about them in the past.

"I admire your team, you have a great team, I've said it a thousand times. You can't be unbeaten for 14 games without being a good team. I've watched three games, against us, Slovakia at home and then Moscow. All three games were 0-0 and in all three games the opponents were better. They had more possession, they had more of the game to play with but there were no chances. We didn't create a chance, Slovakia didn't create a chance, Russia did, okay, but in a split second, so I am a big admirer of your team."

The Croatians still believe it's a game they have to win but a side which took one point in two games against Greece and lost in Georgia doesn't need to be feared.

The Croatian view is that Bilic's side remains strong but their defence is ponderous. Ireland can find opportunities against their slow centre-backs Gordon Schildenfeld and Josip Simunic.

Ireland will be happy with a point but there would be merit in attacking Croatia. Apart from their slow backline, they have struggled to find a replacement for Niko Kovac, who plays in front of the defence. It is significant that Trapattoni wants his wide players to move inside, something Aiden McGeady did on Monday night and there may be some fortune if Ireland try to push Croatia back.

Against the defence, Ireland's forward line will want to create chances.

In Budapest, Bilic's main scout, Gordon Cipric, expressed his admiration for Shane Long. "Walters is a good player, but I think Long is better. He's strong, good in the air which is important because Ireland play long balls."

Despite their weaknesses, Croatia will expect to dominate possession against Ireland as most teams do. So much depends on Modric to recover his energy after a draining season. Tomislav Dujmovic is likely to start behind him in the centre of midfield.

Bilic may be tempted to change things having observed how Ireland struggle against three men in the centre. Srna will be on the right, probably in midfield, but Croatians were suggesting last week he could also play at right-back. It's unlikely, as the Irish men they fear are on the wings. Bilic mentioned James McClean last week as well as Duff and McGeady.

"I think he will definitely use him but whether he will start or not I can't say," Bilic says. "There are a lot of options, you can't say McClean is better than McGeady or Duff but he has options there."

Bilic also mentioned Stephen Hunt's ability from set-pieces and added "his legs are brilliant".

Croatia are saying the right things about Ireland but they are looking ahead. When the game kicks off tonight, Cipric will be in Donetsk, waiting to watch France play England. Croatia could meet them in the next round. They're not ready to be written off just yet.

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