Euro 2012 Players to Watch: Nikica Jelavic of Croatia

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Euro 2012 Players to Watch: Nikica Jelavic of Croatia
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When Everton signed a big new centre-forward from the Rangers in January, Nikica Jelavic was something of an unknown quantity. Many players before him had made the journey south of the border with an exemplary scoring record in Scotland and failed to replicate that in England, but not Jelavic.

Now after proving himself in one of Europe’s top club competitions, Jelavic will now lead the line for his country at Euro 2012 in a tough group that features Spain, Italy and Republic of Ireland. So often pegged as the dark horse going into a tournament, Jelavic could help Croatia spring a surprise against the two fancied teams in the group.

IN NUMBERS

Rangers plucked relative unknown Jelavic from Rapid Vienna, where he had scored 18 goals in 33 appearances in his second and final full season in the Austrian league.

The Croatian hitman cost £4 million in 2010, and he did not waste much time in repaying that investment.

Jelavic scored four goals in his first five games in Scotland and ended his first season with 19 strikes in all, including the extra-time winner against Celtic in the Scottish League Cup final.

In all the 26-year-old scored 36 goals in 54 games over his 18 months at Rangers, an impressive haul in any league.

That was enough to persuade Everton to snap him up in the most recent January transfer window for £5.5 million. Since then he has registered 11 goals in 16 games to help the Toffees to another comfortable top-half finish.

Amongst those goals came a run of seven goals in four games, including back-to-back braces in the thrilling 4-4 draw at Manchester United and the 4-0 demolition of Fulham back at Goodison Park.

Jelavic’s success at club level is in stark contrast to his fortunes in the international arena. After scoring on his debut—netting the winner in a 3-2 friendly victory over Qatar in 2009—he has only added one more goal to his tally in a total of 18 appearances, though only a handful of those have been starts.

He only made three starts in qualifying as he was behind Eduardo da Silva, Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic in the pecking order. In all, Jelavic played 315 minutes in Group F without scoring as Croatia finished as runners-up to Greece.

He also played just a minimal role in the playoffs as Croatia beat a disappointing Turkey side 3-0 on aggregate, with Olic and Mandzukic both scoring in that tie.

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WHAT TO EXPECT

Although it is true that Jelavic did not contribute as much as other strikers in Croatia’s qualification campaign, his career is in a very different place going into the tournament.

While his compatriots Eduardo, Olic and Mandzukic were plying their trade at Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg respectively, Jelavic was playing in Scotland having recently moved from Austria, hardly two of Europe’s top leagues.

However, now he has shown his abilities in the Premier League, manager Slaven Bilic may be convinced to give him a shot in his first major finals.

The 6-foot-1 striker’s great strength lies not in his ability to simply use his size to his advantage—although he is highly adept at holding the ball up and bringing others into play—but in his surprising agility for such a large player.

Jelavic’s touch and his intelligence off the ball mark him out from the average “big man” striker, and as such puts him into the international class bracket of forwards.

Croatia are sure to be heavily tested as they try to break down a stubborn Ireland team before taking on top opposition in Spain and Italy. Even if Jelavic is not deployed from the start of any of those demanding fixtures, he will offer a significant threat from the bench and will surely see some decent game time in Poland and Ukraine.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT HIM

Jelavic’s boss at Everton, David Moyes, admits he did not anticipate the Croatian being such an immediate hit, but he believes he has had as big an effect on the Premier League as fellow January arrival Papiss Cisse has at Newcastle.

The Sun quoted Moyes as saying earlier this month:

“He has been every bit as influential for us as Papiss Cisse has been for Newcastle. He’s made a big difference to us with his goals, which we hadn’t got. Did I think he would have such an impact? You hope! Our lads know if we get the ball in the box we can get ourselves a goal.”

Jelavic’s Everton teammate Tim Howard agrees. The American goalkeeper is delighted with the striker’s performance since arriving on Merseyside, and thinks there is more to come once he returns from the Euros this summer.

Howard told the Liverpool Echo:

“He’s been brilliant for us, he’s been great, it was a steal at the price we got him for his goal return. He has been fantastic and he is a great Everton forward – he works his socks off, he runs the channels, likes to get in behind and he finishes his chances. I think he got 17 goals at Rangers and 11 for us so that’s not a bad goal return for the 12 months."

“We are looking forward to getting him from pre-season. He has bedded in with the team now, which is great. Going into next season, he will be one of the boys and he knows the system and he knows the fans. We need a top striker and we got one.”

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