There were just 107 seconds on the stadium clock last Friday when the 50,000 capacity crowd at Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul was stunned into silence. Croatia hitman Ivica Olic was the man responsible, when he opened the scoring for the visitors in the first leg of the UEFA EURO 2012 play-off.
Mario Mandzukic made it two after half an hour, and Vedran Corluka added a third six minutes into the second half, all but rendering Tuesday's return in Zagreb a formality as the East Europeans close in on a berth in Poland and Ukraine.
“I honestly believe it couldn't have gone any better. We were magnificent, although we were actually a little surprised by the result ourselves. We were definitely expecting a tighter contest, but we certainly deserved it, because we worked very hard as a team," Mandzukic exclusively told FIFA.com.
The game was a re-run of the EURO 2008 quarter-final, which went down to the wire and ended with the Turks winning on penalties, so the clear-cut 3–0 victory exceeded the expectations of even the wildest Croatian optimist. “But it was definitely due to us,” the player insisted. “We played some really good football, and everyone who was there will tell you we never gave our opponents any space whatsoever."
You play football because of these tournaments. I always knew this was our big chance, and I'm delighted I've been able to play my part so far.
The match stats underline Croatia's dominance on the night. Mandzukic and company fired 13 shots at home keeper Volkan Demirel’s goal, fully nine of them on target, while the home side mustered just one off-target effort. It was Croatia's first victory on Turkish soil, and their biggest over the Turks since joining FIFA as an independent nation in 1993. The record since then reads two wins, two draws and the 3–1 penalty defeat at the last EURO.
Mandzukic, currently the form player for Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg, insisted there would be no let-up or complacency ahead of the second leg. “Straight after last Friday’s match, we said there’d be no euphoria. We’re not celebrating yet, not until after the return. Our aim is to repeat the performance from Istanbul and win again.”
“I know anything can happen in football," the striker continued, “but due to the way we're approaching the match, and the level of concentration shown by everyone here, I'm extremely hopeful we can rule out a slip-up." The team coached by Slaven Bilic are poised to contest the continental championship for the fourth time. The Croats made the last eight in 1996 and 2008, but failed to progress from the group stage in 2004.
Mandzukic himself has yet to appear at a major international tournament, but barring a huge upset, the 25-year-old will remedy that omission next summer. Three of his four goals in a national shirt have come in the current qualifying campaign, and each match ended in victory for Croatia; a 2-1 win over Georgia, a 2–0 victory against Latvia, and the most recent success in Turkey.
Playing at the EURO would fulfil a dream, the player freely admitted to FIFA.com. “You play football because of these tournaments. I always knew this was our big chance, and I'm delighted I've been able to play my part so far. I'll keep on giving it everything to make sure nothing goes wrong now."