Croatia dispelled theories that they could be to Euro 96 what Colombia were to USA 94 by coasting into the quarter-finals here last night. What was ultimately an embarrassingly easy win, with Davor Suker scoring twice and creating another, shed more light on the tournament's enigmas. It also left Denmark, the holders, unsure of advancing even if they beat Turkey in their final Group D game.
Several of the Croatia team were part of the Yugoslavia squad whose place at Euro 92 was taken by Denmark. They had played down suggestions that there was a residue of resentment, but the opening exchanges were notable for some rugged challenges on the Danes.
Mario Stanic, a Bosnian born Croat, was the chief culprit, lunging in high on Michael Schjonberg as early as the third minute and late on Jes Hogh before the 20th. The second foul earned a caution. In between, Zvonimir Boban caught Michael Laudrup in the most delicate part of his anatomy but received the benefit of the doubt from the referee.
Croatia, who gave a start to Goram Vlaovic after his match-winning cameo against Turkey, began to weave their intricate triangles. Vlaovic and Suker appeared to have a telepathic understanding, while Derby's new recruit from Hajduk Split, Aljosa Asanovic, sprayed passes from midfield with laser precision.
Suker, having sent one drive on to the roof of Peter Schmeichel's net, then selflessly fed his partner, who turned Thomas Helveg only to see his low shot held by the keeper. Vlaovic also tumbled theatrically as Schmeichel beat him to Asanovic's through-ball, receiving a yellow card for his trouble. In response, the Danes mustered only a wide long-range drive from Kim Vilfort before the break.
West Ham's Slaven Bilic, dissecting the square Danish defence with a pass so sweet that the crowd's teeth were at risk, sent Stanic clear. Schmeichel, plunging the midfielder's feet as he struggled to control the ball, clearly made contact. Suker, breaking his run for a John Aldridge shuffle, slotted the spot-kick calmly to the keeper's right.
With 12 minutes remaining, Croatia all but doubled their advantage. A corner by Robert Prosinecki found Igor Stimac unmarked, but the Derby defender's clever shot struck the underside of the bar. The only danger to the Croats was over-confidence, and within a minute Brian Laudrup scrambled the ball against their upright. As if reminded of the slenderness of their lead, they swept upfield and made the game safe.
This time, Suker was the provider, breaking on the left before crossing into the six-yard box. Boban, lunging rather more legitimately than he had in the first half, sealed a richly deserved victory.
The champions' humiliation was complete when Suker alighting on a sumptuous crossfield pass from Asanovic 30-yards out, advanced before chippping Schmeichel, who was struggling to recover his ground after an ill-advised foray into the Croatian half.
Goals: Suker (53 pen) 1-0; Boban (80) 2-0; Suker (89) 3-0.
CROATIA (5-3-2): Ladic (Croatia Zagreb); Stanic (Club Bruges), Jerkan (Real Oviedo), Bilic (West Ham), Stimac (Derby), Jarni (Real Betis); Asanovic (Derby), Boban (Milan), Prosinecki (Barcelona); Vlaovic (Padova), Suker (Real Madrid). Substitutes: Soldo (Croatia Zagreb) for Boban, 82; Jurcevic (Freiburg) for Vlavoic, 82; Mladenovic (Gamba Osaka) for Prosinecki, 88.
DENMARK (1-2-5-1-1): Schmeichel (Manchester United); J Hogh (Fenerbahce); Thomsen (Ipswich), Rieper (West Ham); Helveg (Udinese), Vilfort (Brondby), B S Nielsen (Odense), Larsen (Lyngby), Schjonberg (Odense); M Laudrup (Real Madrid), B Laudrup (Rangers). Substitutes: Laursen (Derby) for Helveg, h-t; Beck (Fortuna Cologne) for Vilfort, 59; Tofting (Aarhus) for Larsen, 69.
Referee: M Batta (France).
Bookings: Croatia Stanic, Prosinecki, Vlaovic.
Man of the match: Suker. Attendance: 33,671.