Road to the Finals
Croatia finished top of Group E above Russia and England, meaning they will go into the competition full of confidence following a nearly faultless campaign.
Having failed to perform too well at the 2006 World Cup when they went out in the group stages, they will be looking to build upon their current momentum and will count anything less than a quarter-final spot as a failure.
The team qualified with one game left of their campaign. Strangely, they discovered that they were through to the finals half way through their 2-0 loss to F.Y.R. Macedonia, meaning that their only loss during qualifying in fact turned out to be a cause for celebration.
Their campaign kicked off with a 0-0 away draw against Russia, but quickly built momentum with a 7-0 home win against Andorra followed by a 2-0 home win against England, which saw them take the top spot in the table, a position which they never relinquished.
Wins against Israel, Macedonia and Estonia followed as the campaign moved into 2007, and they showed little signs of weakness until a 0-0 draw against Russia in June became their first match in which they failed to score a goal since the last time the two sides had met.
During the final three months of qualification, they never really looked to be in any danger. A win against Estonia, another rampant 6-0 win against Andorra and a 1-0 win against early contenders Israel saw them on the brink of qualification.
After they had qualified through the Russia’s loss to Israel, the team were not finished there, and were keen to cap off a successful campaign in style. What followed was their fateful visit to Wembley, as they went on to win in style 3-2, knocking England out of the tournament and finishing off a fantastic campaign to go in to the finals full of confidence.
Since then they have played in two friendly matches, which have not been so impressive. A 3-0 loss to the Netherlands at home and a 0-0 draw to Scotland away have not been the best results, but they will not mind as they go into the competition knowing that they are fully capable of beating the best opposition around.
Their firepower is good, and in the 12 qualifying matches they managed to score a fantastic 28 goals, meaning that we can expect a few impressive displays from a team full of hope and expectation.
Bilić joined the national team setup in July 2006 following two years with the Under-21 squad. He has since proved his worth by taking the team to the top of the qualifying table in style, and has been rewarded with an extra two years added onto his contract.
A successful defender in his youth, he played for HNK Hajduk and the Croatian national side, with whom he managed to build up 44 caps. He was part of the squad at the 1998 World Cup, where Croatia made some stunning performances to reach the semi-finals of the competition for the first time in their history.
As Under-21 coach, he led the team to top their qualifying group in the 2006 European Championship, but did not see them through to the tournament where they went out to Serbia in the playoffs.
He will be familiar to England fans, who will remember him from his time spent at West Ham in 1996, although perhaps he will be recognised now for ending England’s hopes of qualifying for the tournament in the last qualification game.
The extension to his contract means that he will once again journey to England with his squad, as the two teams have been drawn against each other in the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup.
Ones to watch
Niko Kovač – central midfielder
As captain of the national side, it will be up to Kovač to prove his leadership credentials that were so successful during qualification. At 36 years old, he is one of the most experienced members of the squad, having played with them since December 1996 and helping them to qualify for the 1998 World Cup before being omitted for two years due to injury. He is not a natural goal-scorer, but with 74 caps and 12 goals to his name, his presence on the pitch cannot be argued.
Mladen Petrić – forward
Pertić will be remembered by England fans as the scorer of the winning goal at Wembley from 25 yards out that saw the end of the road for England. Eyed as the possible replacement for Eduardo, he has been on form throughout the qualification campaign, scoring goals all over the place, and in the process becoming the first ever Croatian player to score four goals in a competitive match during their 7-0 thrashing of Andorra. Although first called up to the squad in 2001, he failed to find a regular place in the setup for a number of years, and it was only when Bilić recalled him to the team in 2006 that he has gone on to prove to be a key member of the team.
Niko Kranjčar – midfielder
Kranjčar made his senior team debut in 2004 after playing for the Under-21 squad, and since progressing to the senior team he has made a significant contribution and has impressed many with his skills. He was part of the 2006 World Cup squad, where his talents shone as he went on to gain worldwide recognition. During qualification he was a consistent performer, playing in every match and managing to score a couple of goals as well. The second of these was the speculative 40 yard strike that fooled Scott Carson and marked the beginning of the end of England’s qualification.
Despite a phenomenal qualifying campaign, the team have been hit hard by the loss of their talisman, the Arsenal player Eduardo de Silva. By far their most prolific goal scorer, with 10 goals during qualification, he is an irreplaceable loss.
However, they still have a wealth of talent at their disposal going into the tournament, and having failed to make it past the group stage in their last three international competitions, they will be eying a quarter-final spot at least.
On paper, they should get through from the group alongside Germany, although Poland have recently come of age with a fantastic qualification campaign and will certainly provide tough competition.
Current FIFA ranking: 13