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Croatia World Cup Preview

Posted: Monday May 27, 2002 7:40 PM

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What are your earliest memories of the World Cup?
The first I think of is the 1978 final in Argentina, with all the excitement from the home fans. Then 1982 in Spain, a tournament where there were so many great games. I think it was France vs. Germany in the semifinal, that was special.

Which of your teammates should people look out for?
The two Kovac brothers, Nico and Robert, should do well, and Igor Tudor is proven at the top level with Juventus.

What stage do people back home expect you to reach?
After we did so well last time, they will want us to reach the semifinals again. But this is a new team, and we are learning all the time. When you realize Croatia's population is just 4.5 million, it is unreasonable to believe we will win the tournament. We will always have a real passion, and that can take us a long way. But, honestly, I feel we will do well if we get through the first round stage this time because we have been given a difficult group.

If you don't win the World Cup, who will?
I expect Italy and France to get through to the last four, and England also have a very good chance. They had some problems in the early qualifying games, but then brought in a top-class coach in Sven-Goran Eriksson. He has done a good job, and they are now a dangerous side.

How they line up

Mirko Jozic experimented with a switch to a 4-4-2 system straight after taking over as coach, but quickly reverted to 3-5-2, or rather an ultra-cautious 5-3-2, with the emphasis heavily on defense and counter-attack.

In goal, Stipe Pletikosa is the most consistent player in the side, with excellent reflexes and shot-stopping skills. Tomislav Butina is second choice.

After Jozic quickly realized that Croatian defenders do not like playing in a back four, the old system of two stoppers and a sweeper is maintained. Igor Tudor is the sweeper, but Jozic has doubts about the Juventus player's fitness after he returned to first-team action only at the end of March after 100 days on the sidelines.

Robert Kovac and Dario Simic are the first-choice stoppers, with veteran regular Igor Stimac having been forced to pull out of the finals because of injury. Josip Simunic is now the likely reserve center-back.

Two midfielders, Zvonimir Soldo and Stjepan Tomas, concentrate solely on destructive duties. Robert Jarni (left) and Boris Zivkovic (right) fill the flank positions. They rarely get forward: Zivkovic is actually a defender, while Jarni, though a wing-back, has lost much of his pace. The inexperienced Danijel Hrman could provide an alternative to Jarni, but Jozic has few other left-footed options. Mario Stanic can be used on the right in a more offensive role.

With so many players committed to defensive duties, Robert Prosinecki will be the sole attacking midfielder. He is still adept at keeping possession, but his days as a top-drawer playmaker are now behind him. Jozic may even look at alternatives to fill the role. Jurica Vranjes has long been seen as the long-term successor to Zvonimir Boban, but his development has been hampered by a lack of first-team action at Bayer Leverkusen. Alternatively, Jozic could play the more mobile Niko Kovac alongside Prosinecki to provide the veteran with greater protection, or even deploy striker Davor Suker in a deeper role.

Suker, now 34, no longer has the legs to play as an out-and-out striker and has rarely played at club level in the past five months. That means Alen Boksic will be the sole striker in the forward line. He may be joined by Goran Vlaovic, playing a little deeper, or even a midfielder such as Davor Vugrinec or Milan Rapajic. Bosko Balaban is unlikely to start after a difficult season at Aston Villa. But the joker in the pack could be Ivica Olic, whose strong physical presence could cause a few surprises.

Croatia's best hope for goals will come from the creativity of Prosinecki and the individual runs of Boksic, but Jozic's men will also be well-drilled for taking set-pieces.

From World Soccer magazine.

Related information
World Soccer World Cup Team Previews
Croatia World Cup Team Page
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