Three thoughts: Hard-hitting Jelavic helps Croatia upend Ireland
Without the help of Ivica Olic, Nikica Jelavic played big in Croatia's victory
Ireland showed it thrives in a set piece, while Croatia showed it struggles
Croatia's Darijo Srna is proving himself to be one of the world's best crossers
Here are three thoughts on Croatia's 3-1 win over Ireland in Group C:
1. Croatia doesn't miss Ivica Olic: When Ivica Olic returned from injury to play in the playoff games against Turkey last November, he came as a revelation. He is not as technically gifted a player as some of those Slaven Bilic has to choose from, but he has an energy and a muscularity that drives back opposing defences giving the more skilful midfielders space in which to play. Turkey couldn't cope with him and Croatia, finding the sort of rhythm they hadn't shown in over three years, swept to a 3-0 victory in Istanbul, taking an early lead and picking Turkey off on the break.
So when Olic suffered a thigh injury and was ruled out of the tournament a week ago, it seemed a major blow to Croatia's chances of progressing from a difficult group. But Nikica Jelavic had an excellent close to the season having joined Everton from Rangers in January. He is a fine finisher -- as he proved with his instinctive jab when Luka Modric's deflected shot fell to him just before half-time (yes, he was offside and the goal shouldn't have stood; but that doesn't detract from the lethalness of the finish) -- but he can also play with his back to goal, using his sizable frame to hold the ball up. He doesn't quite have the same dynamic style as Olic, but he may turn out to be almost as effective.
2. Set-plays are Ireland's strength; Croatia's weakness: Away against Greece in October, Croatia, applying for a draw, seemed comfortable. It held possession well and, although it didn't create much, there seemed little reason to think the game would finish anything other than 0-0. With 20 minutes remaining, Croatia was still in control. Two set plays later, Croatia had lost 2-0. It simply panics when the ball is in the air in its box. Stipe Pletikosa is not a commanding goalkeeper and Vedran Corluka and Gordon Schildenfeld do not radiate the same toughness and aggression as Robert Kovac and Josip Simunic used to. The tendency in Croatia is often to lament its lack of creative midfielders with the quality of Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban but actually what it lacks is the power at the back of the midfield and in central defence that is used to have.
Ireland, by contrast, revels in a set piece. Crossed balls was always likely to be its best opportunity to score and sure enough, Sean St. Ledger produced a repeat of his header against Italy three years ago arriving at the back post to nod in Aiden McGeady's free-kick. A whistle went in the crowd as the ball was crossed which led to confusion on both sides, but Corluka's inept attempts to mark St Ledger had nothing to do with that. Twice in the second half Richard Dunne almost got to set-plays while Shildenfeld's clumsy challenge on Robbie Keane just inside the box after 64 minutes equally did little to inspire confidence.
3. Darijo Srna is one of the best crossers of a ball in the world: In 2007-08, after Croatia had eliminated England from Euro 2008, Darijo Srna was briefly linked with a number of Premier League clubs.
In the end he stayed in Ukraine, with Shakhtar Donetsk, whom he captained to the Uefa Cup in 2009. He is 30 now and a move to one of the big English, German or Italian clubs is probably beyond him -- although his contract at Shakhtar will be lucrative enough. He usually plays as a right-back for his club and on the right side of midfield for his country, but against Ireland Srna played at right-back as Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic took the wide midfield berths.
Whatever his position, he remains one of the finest crossers of a ball in the world, whether from set-pieces or open play. It was his cross that led to Mario Mandzukic's opening goal, a half-clearance falling for the Wolfsburg forward to head in from just inside the box. It's a sign of the purity of his technique that he can his spectacular volleys such as the one he attempted from a Rakitic corner in the 50th minute, hitting the ball cleanly from 25 yards out only for it to be stopped by a copse of Irish defenders. That moment was indicative of Croatia's greater quality; it was slicker and neater in possession and while it wobbled at times at the back it looked a class above Ireland.
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