Bilic, Kranjcar eye six early points
Croatia coach Slaven Bilic is targeting maximum points from his side's opening UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier in Latvia tomorrow night. The 41-year-old is anxious to get his country back on track after their failure to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and has vowed to come flying out of the traps in Riga.
A key home game against 2004 European champions Greece follows on Tuesday, and Bilic wants no half measures from his side in their bid to reach the continental finals in Poland and Ukraine.
"Let's go for three points," said the former Hajduk Split and West Ham United defender, who successfully guided Croatia to a place at EURO 2008. "We have reiterated many times that we start with two games from which we want all six points. So, in Riga, we are interested only in victory."
Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Niko Kranjcar is also eyeing a perfect start to the campaign. "We have long waited for these qualifiers and I hope that we will start with two wins, which will bring us confidence," he said.
"We respect every opponent, but must return with three points. Greece and ourselves are the group favourites, and we must prove it on the field."
Latvia are protecting a five-game unbeaten home record in competitive matches but have a poor record against Croatia, having lost both of their two previous meetings, which came in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002.
Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs will be able to call on skipper Vitalijs Astafjevs, who has shrugged off an injury problem and should win his 163rd cap.
Santos initiation, Ketsbaia dream
In the night's other Group F encounter, Greece will contest their first competitive match since the departure of German coach Otto Rehhagel, who stood down after nine years in the role following his side's early elimination from South Africa 2010. The Greeks will line up against Georgia at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus in what will be Fernando Santos's first test at the reins.
"It's hard to demand that we reach the finals given that the team has not won for so long," said Ketsbaia, alluding to his country's winless display in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. "But I would be lying if I said I wasn't dreaming of Poland and Ukraine. As long as we have a chance, we will fight."