Bilic sees Croatia similarities with 1998
Croatia face a tough task to qualify from a UEFA EURO 2012 group containing defending champions Spain and Italy but coach Slaven Bilic will draw on his experiences as a player in the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ to inspire them to do so.
The 43-year-old - who has been in the post for nearly six years - was an integral part of the team that lost to eventual winners France in the FIFA World Cup semi-finals and he sees several parallels with his present side. "I'm always asked that question regarding the squad then and the one now," Bilic told Uefa.com.
"Obviously I'm directly involved as are several of my coaching staff who like me were players then. But I'm not objective. Both teams are of high quality but like them we also have a lot of bad qualities. It would be hard to repeat that success of 1998 for such a small country."
However, with just seven defeats in their last 61 matches under Bilic's tenure, the Croats will not be taken lightly. And while they failed to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals they were impressive at the last EUROs, reaching the last eight where they suffered the heartbreak of going out on penalties to Turkey.
Bilic said then that the match "will haunt us for the rest of our lives" but the squad appear to have rebuilt their confidence and are filled with attacking zeal and creativity. Players such as Luka Modric of Tottenham Hotspur and Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic are the creative hub of the side with a plethora of choice up-front between the veteran poaching skills of Ivan Klasnic or the younger talents of Borussia Dortmund's Ivan Perisic.
Bilic could face what would be a tense quarter-final meeting with France coach Laurent Blanc, after his antics in the 1998 FIFA World Cup semi-final saw the French captain sent off. He will also be hoping Nikica Jelavic's superb club form since he joined Everton from Rangers in January transfers itself to this level.
Bilic is adamant that with all their attacking resources the basic principles he has instilled in the squad will remain the same and there will be no adapting. "Our best players are better with the ball," he said. "We try to dictate the rhythm of the match and to dominate and in most cases we succeed. We have won 40 and lost seven matches under my leadership, which is a rare record for an international team."
His veteran defender Dario Srna - who is captain of Ukrainian double-winners Shakhtar Donetsk - believes that they can reach the quarter-finals and cannot wait to tackle the Spanish. "To play Spain is every player's dream," said the 30-year-old, who was part of the Shakhtar team that won the last ever UEFA Cup trophy in 2009.
"We might not be given much of a chance but we have a style that could pose them problems. We play Ireland first and they will not be easy but we feel we can win that one and provide a launching pad for qualifying for the last eight."