Croatia vs. Turkey: a Battle of Hearts and Minds
Tomorrow evening (Friday), the large majority of the 22 Croatian and Turkish players that take to the field in the Ernst Happel stadium in Vienna will be playing the biggest match of their footballing careers.
The stories behind each team's qualification to this stage are markedly different.
Croatia have breezed through with three wins out of three, including an impressive victory over tournament favourites Germany who, as I type, have dumped Portugal out of the competition in emphatic style.
Turkey needed three late goals and a remarkable comeback against the Czechs to sneak into the last eight but that shouldn't disguise the fact that their football has been polished and highly impressive for the most part.
Whilst it is commonly accepted that Croatia boast more star players—namely Modric, Srna, the two Kovacs and Krancjar for starters—the teams share many qualities that have seen them through over the last two years or so of qualification and preparation.
Both sets of players have an insatiable desire to succeed, an excellent workrate, both wear their hearts on their sleeves, both sets of players will battle right until the final whistle and both squads are guided by two eccentric but bright and determined coaches.
It is the very fact that neither team has anything to lose and everything to gain that makes this encounter so mouth-watering. I will put my neck on the line by suggesting that this might be the game of the tournament—and we have seen some crackers already!
Croatian fans held high hopes going into the tournament but much of their optimism was a mere by-product of Slaven Bilic's fearless aplomb and they surely could not have expected to be in the position of being overwhelming favourites to take the second semi-final place.
As for Turkey, surely an inspired and inspirational comeback against a Czech team that panicked merely papered over cracks that will give way against a side of more substance such as Croatia?
Turkey will have to provide quality service to their talented frontline of Nihat and Tuncay if they are to win this match. Arda Turan and the all-action Hamit Altintop have been in impressive form to date and they will need to be at the top of their game to nullify the vision of Modric and the industry of Srna, Pranjic and Kranjcar on the Croatian flanks.
Croatia will look to test stand-in goalkeeper Rustu Recber whose dubious handling may be exposed from set pieces.
Croatia will look to build on the solid platform that the ever reliable Pletikosa, Simic and Kovacs provide and Bilic will hope that the talented midfielders he has at his disposal will create havoc for the Turkish rearguard in the absence of their Brazilian-born talisman Eduardo da Silva.
The two managers on show will hope that they can impact the game through their differing but not unsubstantial qualities.
In one dugout, Bilic will shout, scream, jump up and down and gesticulate, build up his players and instill in them confidence and passion. In the other, Fatih Terim will call on extensive experience and will hope that his know how might give his charges the edge under pressure.
Although it is difficult to predict the outcome of what should be an enthralling and passionate contest between two rising footballing nations, I think that the Croatians have gone from strength to strength in the tournament and will see off Turkey—with a few frights along the way.
Prediction: Croatia 2-1 Turkey
Croatia: Luka Modric. Tottenham Hotspur has paid €21 million for the services of this bright box-to-box midfielder. Has had a good tournament so far without standing out. He can certainly, however, hurt Turkey with his intelligence and movement.
Turkey: Nihat. Another intelligent and skillful player but with greater experience of the big stage having played in the Champions League for a number of years. He will look to find space in between the Croatian defence and midfield and create chances.
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