Ivan Rakitic could have been forgiven for thinking 'not again' back in November 2007, when Croatia drew England in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The teams had only just locked horns in the UEFA EURO 2008 preliminaries. "They’re obviously our chief rivals in the group, and it’s certainly a little bit special playing the English in consecutive qualifying competitions,” the lively midfielder told FIFA.com.
The Croatians took full advantage of England’s weak qualifying performance for the EURO, and travelled to the continental showdown in Austria and Switzerland instead of their crestfallen rivals, but the roles have been reversed in the battle for places at the next FIFA World Cup. The current group standings give a good measure of the immensity of Slaven Bilic side's task against the on-song Three Lions. Indeed, after four matches in European Zone, Group 6, Fabio Capello's side already hold a five-point advantage over their runners-up.
England’s emphatic 4-1 win in Zagreb over the men in the chequered jerseys in mid-September last year, still the only time Croatia have conceded in the competition to date, served to underline their resurgent fortunes. "Catching the English now will be very difficult, but we know from the previous qualifying campaign that anything can happen. However, I reckon we’re in a fight for second place with Ukraine. Obviously, I’m hoping we win the fight,” Rakitic said.
The midfielder, who switched to the German Bundesliga with Schalke in 2007, has quite literally played himself into the Croatia line-up. A combination of prodigious skill and the nose for goal which has yielded six goals in 17 appearances makes Rakitic a formidable opponent for any defender.
The 1.83m (6ft 0in) player offers a simple explanation for his fine form in a national shirt. "In the 18 months I’ve spent as part of the Croatia set-up, I’ve found my bearings really well. We get on famously as a group, and the system and tactics are very much my kind of thing," he explained.
Rakitic and Co travel to the Camp d'Esports d'Aixovall on 1 April for a meeting with rank underdogs and current group strugglers Andorra. The Vatreni (the Fiery Ones) sent the minnows scuttling back to the Pyrenees by a 4-0 margin in October 2008, and if the inspirational Rakitic has anything his way, the reverse fixture could end with more of the same.
"We’re taking it very seriously because we know we have to go there and win. It’s important we go on the attack right away. An early goal would make the task a lot more comfortable,” he said.
The Croatia squad will travel from leading clubs all over Europe for next Wednesday’s match, but the 900-capacity stadium in Andorra provides a modest environment for the match, to say the least. All league games in the co-principality of 82,000 inhabitants take place on the venue's artificial pitch, but Rakitic insisted the surroundings present no problem at all.
"I’ve played there once before, and yes, it’s a world apart from a Bundesliga game in Schalke. But we’re talking about a World Cup qualifier. We have to take it very seriously, even if we’re probably only playing in front of 300 people, the majority of them from Croatia,” said the schemer, warning his team-mates of the dangers of complacency.
The year 2009 opened with a shock for Croatia when Niko Kovac not only stepped down from the captaincy, but also announced his immediate international retirement. The first match without the man capped 83 times by his country ended successfully, with a 2-1 win away to Romania in February, but Rakitic appreciates the difficulty of coping with the loss of a leading figure like Kovac.
"Niko’s retirement was a blow, both on the field and off it. He was an important man for the team in every way, but we have to respect his decision,” Rakitic said.
Battling to the end
If the Group 6 table remains as it is, second-placed Croatia would be forced into the torment of the play-offs in search of a ticket to South Africa 2010. However, Ukraine remain right in the thick of things with the same points total from a game less, and could yet be responsible for Croatia missing out on a FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1994.
"That’s not something I’m thinking about whatsoever. Our goal is to qualify. Anything less would be a huge disappointment for us and for our nation,” said Rakitic. The player is now committed to playing his part in helping his country advance towards Africa next year - perhaps keeping one eye on London, where England entertain the Ukrainians.