Tuesday 19 March 2019

England haven't yet faced quality of our midfield - Bilic

Croatia’s former defender and coach Slaven Bilic. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Croatia’s former defender and coach Slaven Bilic. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Jason Burt

If there was any doubt as to how much the World Cup semi-final against England means to Croatia, then listen to Slaven Bilic.

"We have waited 20 years for this," said Croatia's former defender and coach.

"For Croatia, there have been four, five tournaments in which they have cried, they have suffered but they have matured and had all the range of emotions and been brave to finally get to the position where they are ready for everything."

Bilic was in the Croatia team that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1998, in what was their first involvement in the tournament. They lost to the hosts and eventual champions, France, before winning the third-place play-off.

The 49-year-old successfully coached his country for six years from 2006 - famously finishing ahead of England to qualify for Euro 2008 as Steve McClaren was consigned to history as the "Wally with the Brolly".

He is now working as an ITV pundit, and will be covering the game in Moscow.

"Although you (England) are a bigger nation, you cannot say it is a bigger achievement for us than it is for you, because 20 years ago we were in the semi-finals also," said Bilic.

"We were at least as successful as you. I think, to be fair, we have still not seen the best of Croatia or the best of England at this World Cup, especially in the last two games.

"Yes, we saw the best of Croatia against Argentina, but in the last couple of games we showed the other side that we didn't have before with this generation - we never used to win those kind of rough games.

"We always had to be better than the opponent and play nice football to beat them. Now we have shown twice (against Denmark and Russia) that we can win those other kind of matches and especially to do so on penalties."

It is obvious to Bilic where the key to the match lies.

"This is going to be the biggest test for you (England) because of the quality we have all over the pitch and especially in midfield. England have not faced that," he said.

"You are talking about one of the best midfield pairs in Europe and in the tournament with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, and we also have Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozinic.

"Midfield is always the key area for the teams who are trying to play with the ball," he continued.

"If you want to play - and Croatia want to play and England want to play - then you always have to take advantage of the midfield. Both teams are trying to play that way, although both, especially England, can play very directly.

"For Croatia, the world-class players are ready and willing to sacrifice and do the dirty work and defend but when we get the ball we are very capable with our skill and pace to hurt the opposition."

Chief among them, according to Bilic, is Modric.

"He has been the best player and the most complete player at the World Cup," Bilic said.

"It's difficult for me to judge him because I have been saying that for ages. He's a unique player. He's the player who runs the most; he's the player who's doing the defence; he presses; he passes - long ball, short ball - and he can gain territory up the pitch and he can also run with the ball and score goals.

"He's a leader, he's taking responsibility. He's the heart of the team. It doesn't matter that he has won four Champions Leagues in five years, he is still one of the most hungry players at this tournament.

"If you add to that his skill and his humility that makes him so far the best player.

"And the way also Rakitic has played, especially in the game against Argentina, he is sacrificing his ego."

England, on the other hand, have not surprised Bilic with their progress so far.


"No, (I'm) not surprised. I was not sure they were going to come this far but I said after they beat Tunisia in the last minute that those kind of wins bring you together and give you belief," he explained.

"That's why it was much better than, say, 2-0 after 20 minutes, especially for a young team because they have that positivity and freedom that says, 'We don't worry'.

"It's like young people in everything in life - they don't think about it, they just do it. Of course they have to be guided but, if that is done properly, and that is the case with Gareth Southgate, it's a big plus.

"And then, of course, you have the set-pieces. Every manager in the world wants his team to score from open play but when it's eight out of 11 (England goals from set-pieces) it's a different story."

Obviously, Bilic wants Croatia to win, despite his time spent in England as a player and most recently as manager of West Ham United, but there is a warning for his country.

"The youth of England is important. They are enjoying it," he explained. "So, for me, it's 50/50." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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