Can Croatia better their 2008 European Championship achievement of reaching the last eight in Poland/Ukraine this year?
Assessing Group C solely from an Irish perspective, Croatia seem to bear comparison with the Godfather Part 3 – damned by an association to their more vaunted stablemates – but despite their inferior standing in historical terms it would be arrogant to dismiss them entirely; they aren’t just around to make up the numbers and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Far from being an assumed but well-kept secret though, it is fair to say the feeling is mutual from the Croats point of view. “We can choose between an easy way of qualifying, or a harder way of doing it – the easy way being to win the first game against Ireland, take three points, and then try to get those additional points in the other two matches,” Croatian captain Darijo Srna stated, quite reasonably, and there is no question that anything other than Spain and Italy taking the top two spots in Group C would represent a big upset – both are odds on to qualify with the Spanish priced at a wallet-sealing 1/7.
This isn’t to say that neither of Group C’s lesser lights have any prospects of reaching the knockout stages of Euro 2012, but it would certainly indicate that when Ireland face Croatia in their June 10 opener in Poznan a loss for either side would be viewed as disastrous, not least from within their own camp, and the result will bear huge significance on their fortunes for the remainder of the tournament.
Croatia certainly didn’t tear up any trees in a qualifying campaign which saw them lose to Georgia then finish two points behind Greece before a cathartic 3-0 victory over their Euro 2008 conquerors Turkey put them in the finals, but they remain a hugely capable and technically gifted group of players. In Luka Modric they have a midfield playmaker as accomplished and composed as any on show at the tournament who don’t use Spanish as their native tongue, while wing-back/right-winger Srna is edging towards his 20th international goal, remains a huge threat from set-pieces and to compare his crossing to that of David Beckham in his prime does neither man a disservice – as six assists in ten qualifying appearances affirms.
Beyond their creative hub though, the Croats are shaky at their core with former Tottenham and Manchester City defender Vedran Corluka their standout performer at the back – and that’s saying something given the fact both of those Premier League clubs swiftly removed Corluka from the fringes of their playing staff when Champions League qualification routinely came into focus. Another fringe player at Spurs, Niko Kranjcar, top-scored in qualifying with just four goals (consecutive braces in successive qualifiers against Malta and Israel) so despite the return to fitness of Ivica Olic they are a side also lacking an out-and-out goalscorer to capitalise on the chances the midfield’s constructive use of possession affords Croatian forwards.
In summation, Croatia should be easy on the eyes but will struggle to put points on the board as a result of weaknesses at either end of the pitch and I certainly wouldn’t back them at 11/8 to reach the quarter-finals.