Football: Suker strike puts England in the frame

World Cup: Croatia's maverick talents overhaul a lively but limited Japan to qualify for the second round; Japan 0 Croatia 1 Suker 77 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 39,000

IT could yet be Croatia but an impending feeling is beginning to take hold that England might be facing Argentina in the World Cup's second round. The persevering Davor Suker's late goal was enough to give the Croats victory at the Stade de la Beaujoire, thus qualifying them for the last 16, and now the Argentinians are left to play catch-up in Group H.

It may be an exercise in chicken-counting but if England do win their group, they will face the second-placed team in Group H. To take over pole position, Argentina will need to beat Jamaica in Paris today by three goals, then secure at least a draw with Croatia in Bordeaux on Friday.

Should the Argentinians fail to do so, the attraction of finishing runners- up would probably increase for England with Croatia, on yesterday's evidence, looking an outfit capable of being tamed. They rarely moved coherently as a team, being more a collection of talented individuals, several of whom are admittedly able to turn games in an instant.

That instant on a blisteringly hot afternoon in Nantes, where the temperature on the pitch nudged 100 degrees, came when Suker struck to shake off enthusiastic but excitable opponents. Naively, Japan surrendered possession in an embryonic attack and Aljosa Asanovic, formerly of Derby Country, accepted it with glee. On he strode down the left before delivering to the far post where Suker took a touch then swept home, the hitherto commanding Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi allowing the ball under his body at his near post.

"It was very difficult to play such heat," said the Croatian coach, Miroslav Blazevic. "Suffice to say that Suker lost four kilos. Japan played an excellent game and created problems for us but we deserved our win because we made more chances."

In Robert Prosinecki, Suker and Asanovic, Croatia possess a maverick trio of talents and egos. All vie with each other for the ball, like lads over the last beer, gesturing in frustration when one of them makes a mistake. They are fortunate to have behind them an outstanding sweeper in Zvonimir Soldo. Perhaps, when the calming Zvonimir Boban returns after a calf injury, there will be more order to them.

Against such as the Japanese, they are always likely to prevail, however. The co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup proved lively opposition, difficult to break down, with Eisuke Nakanishi exceptional at the back. But they rarely looked like scoring, and this was their second successive 1-0 defeat, having to succumbed to Argentina in Toulouse.

Indeed, the Japanese resembled their charming but noisy 20,000 or so fans, who gave the event the air of a women's hockey international at Wembley. They tore up car magazines and threw the pieces as greeting to their team (motors half the prices of Europe, incidentally, the scraps revealed) to give the stadium more the look of the River Plate. They had no Mario Kempes, however, to finish off some neat approach work.

Instead there was the promising 21-year-old Hidetoshi Nakata, who provided some bright moments in midfield even if his football was not quite as conspicuous as his henna-dyed hair. One sensed that, when Drazen Ladic turned away with his left hand Masashi Nakayama's shot from Nakata's brilliant through ball just past the half hour, that the Japanese were destined not to score.

They had other chances, though, in an often sloppy game that clearly the heat got to. Naoki Soma hit a cross shot just wide early on and the substitute, Wagner Lopes, sent a diving header narrowly past a post as time ebbed away. Generally, however, it became a question of whether the Croats would finally find the target.

And until Suker did, they were criminally wasteful, not least the captain himself. First, he headed a yard wide, then clipped a 20-yard free-kick the same distance past. Mario Stanic then forced Kawaguchi into a low save when the best option was Prosinecki at the far post.

Suker's duel in the sun with Kawaguchi continued when he glanced a header wide before gliding past the stumbling Nakanishi and clipping a shot on to the top of the Japan bar. Eventually, though, came the goal that put a gloss on a now labouring Croatia performance.

"I am proud of this team and of our qualification," said Blazevic. "It is a great honour for a small country. From now on, anything is possible and we are going to try to meet the challenge."

England, one suspects, will probably be hoping that they are that challenge.

Japan (3-5-2): Kawaguchi (Yokohama Marinos); Akita (Kashima Antlers), Ihara (Yokohama Marinos), Nakanishi (Jef Utd Ichihara); Narahashi (Kashima Antlers), Yamaguchi (Yokohama Flugels), Nakata (Bellmare Hiratsuka), Nanami (Jubilo Iwata), Soma (Kashima Antlers); Nakayama (Jubilo Iwata), Jo (Yokohama Marinos). Substitutes: Okano (Urawa Red Diamonds) for Nakayama, 61; Morishima (Cerezo Osaka) for Narahashi, 79; Lopes (Bellmare Hiratsuka) for Nanami, 84.

Croatia (3-5-2): Ladic (Croatia Zagreb); Bilic (Everton), Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Stimac (Derby County); Simic (Croatia Zagreb), Asanovic (Napoli), Jurcic (Croatia Zagreb), Prosinecki (Croatia Zagreb), Jarni (Real Betis); Suker (Real Madrid), Stanic (Parma). Substitutes: Vlaovic (Valencia) for Stimac, h-t; Maric (Croatia Zagreb) for Prosinecki, 67; Tudor (Hajduk Split) for Stanic, 88.

Referee: R Ramdhan (Trinidad).

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