Euro 2012 is around the corner for Croatia, and they’ll be hoping they can shock the world like Ciro Blažević’s bunch did in 1998.
Slaven Bilić has a serviceable squad but has drawn a tough group on paper: Spain, Italy and the Republic of Ireland.
Here are eight things you need to know about Croatia at Euro 2012.
Slaven Bilić probably would have liked an easier group, but if he manages Croatia to the quarterfinals in a group containing Spain, Italy and the Republic of Ireland, he will have cemented a future job in the Premier League.
It’s a very tough group for Bilić and Croatian football, but no one gave them a chance during their fairy-tale run in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. So you never know with the mercurial Croatians.
First game vs. Republic of Ireland: This is a must-win game for Croatia, especially against a pragmatic-minded Giovanni Trapattoni.
Second game vs. Italy: The issue with Cesare Prandelli is who will score the goals? Will Antonio Cassano be fit enough to play?
Third game vs. Spain: If Spain has won the group already, they may play their reserves (David Silva, Javi Martínez, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Pedro).
If Bilić needs a result from this game, then he should pray a Hail Mary and park the bus in front of goal.
French football aficionados will remember Bilić for getting Laurent Blanc sent off in the 1998 FIFA World Cup semifinals.
Bilić’s 68 percent winning percentage as the Croatian national team manager indicates that his managerial career may eclipse his achievements as a player.
During the Euro 2012 qualification, Bilić used a conventional 4-4-2 formation in 11 of the 12 games.
The one occasion Bilić stayed away from the 4-4-2 was during a 2-0 loss to Greece, where he played a 4-3-3 with a front three of Mario Mandžukić, Nikica Jelavić and Eduardo.
It is highly likely that Bilić will use a 4-4-2 during Euro 2012.
Josip Šimunić’s calmness in possession and experience will be pivotal against Spain’s Fernando Llorente if Croatia need a result come the final game of the group stages.
Šimunić played 13 years in the Bundesliga before signing with Dinamo Zagreb.
He may be Slaven Bilić's No.1 defender, but he isn't rated by Dinamo Zagreb manager Ante Čačić, who has the Australian-born Croatian defender behind Domagoj Vida and Tonel.
Luka Modrić is the conductor at Tottenham Hotspur, as he dictates the tempo of the game.
We’ll find out how good Modrić really is when he goes head-to-head with Daniele De Rossi in the second group game against Italy.
Modrić vs. Xavi is intriguing on paper, but if Spain wins their first two games, the Spanish maestro is likely to be rested.
Mario Mandžukić has been in scintillating form of late, scoring three goals and providing four assists in March for Wolfsburg.
He was flawless—as he basically won the game by himself—against Nuremberg.
He knows his way around goal and has lovely passing ability, but it remains to be seen if he can produce against stronger teams.
In the Bundesliga this season, he hasn't scored a goal or provided an assist against Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Darijo Srna is a good right-back, but he’s better as a right winger, where he will provide incisive crosses and trouble opposing full-backs.
Without Srna on the right wing, I wouldn’t be comfortable with Niko Kranjčar, who can only produce out wide against weak teams like Malta.
Stipe Pletikosa: Injury withstanding, he has no competition for his starting place especially after Vedran Runje’s fall from grace.
Vedran Ćorluka: Darijo Srna would be the No. 1 right-back in the squad, but he’s also the best Croatian winger. So Srna is likely to play in midfield, allowing Ćorluka to play at right-back. Will youngster Šime Vrsaljko make the final squad?
Josip Šimunić: In terms of experience and performance for the team, he is the best defender, but if Croatia is humiliated at Euro 2012 like Serbia and Montenegro was at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, it could spell a changing of the guard.
Dejan Lovren: I rate him a better defender than Gordon Schildenfeld. Domagoj Vida has an outside shot of starting at centre-back, but he has played at full-back in recent times for Croatia.
Ivan Strinić: Vida played one game at left-back against Turkey (and another at right-back) but he isn’t better than Strinić because he is a centre-back. Strinić should start, but if he doesn’t and Vida doesn’t, Danijel Pranjić would be the likely starter.
Ognjen Vukojević: A strong bustling enforcer in midfield. Tomislav Dujmović could be another option.
Luka Modrić: If he is injured, then Croatia has no hope of qualifying out of the group.
Darijo Srna: One of the most underrated players in world football. I don’t watch him every week, but when I do watch him, he’s generally the best player, or one of the best players, on the field.
Ivan Rakitić: Left wing is the major issue for Croatia because there is no undisputed starter. I’d play Rakitić, even though he plays centrally for Sevilla, because he’s such a classy operator. If Ivan PeriŠić was playing more game time for Borussia Dortmund, he’d probably be the left winger, but he’s just a sub for Die Borussen.
Ivica Olić: It’s either him or Eduardo, who hasn’t been the same since that broken leg. I’d prefer Olić because he’ll hustle and chase down opposing defenders.
Mario Mandžukić: Easily the best Croatian forward in the world right now. However, he has had issues performing against stronger teams, as Felix Magath has found out for Wolfsburg.
When Ivica Osim was deciding who to include in his 1990 Yugoslav FIFA World squad, he decided to select a 22-year-old Davor Šuker, a 21-year-old Robert Jarni and a 20-year-old Alen Bokšić —all three had yet to start two games in a row for Yugoslavia.
Šuker would go onto become Croatia's greatest ever footballer.
Jarni played an integral role in Croatia's swift rise as a road-running wing-back.
By the way, a then-21-year-old Zvonimir Boban would have been selected in Osim's squad, if he hadn't famously lashed out at a police officer who had attacked a Dinamo Zagreb supporter.
The point I'm making is that there are always squad positions for prodigious wunderkinds, and here are two youngsters Slaven Bilić is probably monitoring.
Mateo Kovačić, Dinamo Zagreb, Attacking Midfielder, Age: 17
He seems to want to play centrally, but Sammir has that position locked down for now. Kovačić has played mainly on the left and sometimes on the right this season. He's an incisive dribbler, still very raw but one for the future.
Ante Vukušić, Hajduk Split, Centre Forward, Age: 20
At just 20, he is Split's go-to man and has scored 11 goals and provided two assists in 21 games.
Please read 7 Wide Players for LFC and Kenny Dalglish.