Team Profile: The fact that Croatia are ranked eighth in the world according to FIFA says much about the national side’s considerable strengths. Despite only gaining independence in 1991, the Croatians have played some impressive football at major tournaments, reaching the quarter-finals at their first Euros in 1996 and finishing third ahead of the Netherlands at the 1998 World Cup in France. Subsequent campaigns have been slightly less eye-catching, however, with the squad failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Yet with manager Slaven Bilić at their helm, they’re more than capable of causing an upset – just ask former England manager Steve McClaren, who no doubt still has nightmares of the 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley, which closed the door on the Three Lions qualifying for Euro 2008. But facing games against Italy and Spain, Croatia will have to be at their very best if they’re to progress past the group stage.
Coach: Slaven Bilić
With a rock song that went to number one in Croatia, a law degree and fluency in four languages, Slaven Bilić is not exactly your standard football manager. The former central defender spent the first half of his career with hometown club Hajduk Split, winning the Croatian domestic double in 1992, before moving abroad to German club Karlsruhe SC as well as English sides West Ham and Everton. At international level, Bilić played a significant part in Croatia’s success both at Euro 1996 and the World Cup two years later – experiences he no doubt drew on when he took charge as Croatia’s manager in 2006.
Player to watch: Luka Modric
Tottenham Hotspur’s diminutive playmaker is seen as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, if not the world – ‘Only Kaka is better than Modric,’ is what Slaven Bilić had to say about him. His incisive through-balls, versatility and all-round attacking skills have attracted the attention of big clubs in recent months, not least Manchester United and Chelsea, the latter trying, yet failing, to sign him last summer. Modric’s influence and success at the 2008 European Championships saw him included in the UEFA Team of the Tournament, so expect him to play another key role this year.
FIFA World Ranking: 8
UEFA Euro Ranking: 21
Number of Euro appearances: 4
Previous best: Quarter-finals at Euro 2008
Qualification: Second in Group F – 21 goals scored, 7 goals against, 84 attempts on target, 86 corners
Form (qualifying): DWWLWWWLWWD
Fixtures: June 10 vs. Ireland; June 14 vs. Italy; June 18 vs. Spain.