Rarely in recent years has there been a greater incentive to write off Croatia as a force. To go with England's 4-1 win in Zagreb last September and the desperately insipid display against Belarus on Saturday, which the Croats edged 1-0, is a side bereft of its two prime forces at Wembley tonight.
Luka Modric's fractured tibia and Vedran Corluka's suspension leaves Slaven Bilic bereft. "Our leader" was the coach's description of Modric at the weekend and his appreciation of Corluka, who has played every minute in the last three years in the national team, is even more effusive. "It's a big blow, of course," he admitted last night. "It's not the same to play any game without such world-class players as Luka or Corluka, though there's no point crying now."
But we've been here once before, underestimating the Croats. Bilic has got the nation so far – ninth in the world – on the basis of many a bad judgement from the opposition so he'll happily witness some more of the hubris which England experienced on that rainy November night in 2007 when, needing the draw to join Bilic's side in the 2008 Euros, they flunked so badly. "There were some words in the media [last time]," said Bilic tentatively acknowledging the complacency. "And I know and my players know that it's the building up of the hype and everything. I can assure that there's no team in the world that my players respect more than England."
Diplomacy from a manager keen to make light of suggestions of his that something essentially English had been lost under Fabio Capello. "I praised Capello and the English team," Bilic insisted. "I didn't say anything negative. I didn't say that they'd lost Englishness. I said, in a positive way, that Mr Capello is one of the best managers in the world, they are more organised, more solid, they control games almost completely, and they don't leave opponents five yards of space. They are playing differently now."
That wasn't what Bilic seemed to be saying at the weekend and it's hard to resist the idea that it was part of a purposeful plan to raise the temperature. The Croatian manager wants England to abandon caution. It is when opposing sides play a more precise game, pressing his players on the ball, denying them possession, respecting them too much, that they have tended to struggle in recent years.
There are more motivational factors for Bilic, like John Terry's negative insinuations about Eduardo da Silva after his two-match Champions League ban for diving. Bilic, who will look to Niko Kranjcar to be a playmaker in Modric's absence tonight, has already dismissed Terry's inferred criticism of Eduardo in no uncertain terms and the power of his words in the striker's defence last night demonstrated why he so motivates his side and nation. "Eduardo is a complete man, a complete person," Bilic said. "He's great as a player, great as a person, great as a brother. He's complete. I can say it because I've known him since he was 17. So I know. When you know you are right, the things that anyone says about you can't harm you at all. It can only motivate you more. He knows that he is 100 per cent honest."
England's barbs about the Croats' conduct in Zagreb last September have also enlivened Croatia – "We've been reading those quotes about some bad challenges in Zagreb on Joe Cole and [Theo] Walcott, but if you've been watching Croatia for the last 20 years, we are not a team that plays dirty with nasty challenges," Bilic said – and of course September's 4-1 defeat itself.
All of which creates a sense of déjà vu – Croatia arriving, two years on, to face a potentially overconfident England and garnering all the motivational strength available to make fools of them. "The best way to show my players what we did well and what we did wrong was to show them some actions from the game at Wembley and some from the game of Zagreb," Bilic said. England will underestimate the mysterious powers of these overachievers at their peril.Reuse content