Bilic banks on Jelavic as he plots one last hurrah
No deals will be on offer from Croatia in Poznan today – and none was even tentatively mentioned by the visitors one famously wet night at Wembley in 2007, lest Davor Suker's remarks be misunderstood. But the country's all-time leading goalscorer did express surprise that no England player came forward with a pragmatic suggestion when, with Peter Crouch's chest-and-volley goal midway through the second half, an equality was established that would have seen both sides safely through to the European finals that summer.
It was on a flight home from Vienna at the end of Euro 2008 that I found myself with Suker and the talk turned to England's absence. He shook his head and smiled. "Our players were amazed that no England player came forward at that crucial stage,'' he said. Nor was there a signal from Steve McClaren with his brolly in the technical area. Maybe it was just not the English way to take part in a 25-minute charade. At any rate, having recovered from a two-goal deficit, they kept piling forward and on the break conceded the goal that cost McClaren his job.
Slaven Bilic, meanwhile, acquired heroic status. Once an international team-mate of Suker's as Croatia rode a post-independence wave to footballing success – albeit hardly admired outside his native land after the histrionics that contributed to Laurent Blanc's suspension from a World Cup final on French soil – Bilic had taken over from Zlatko Kranjcar in 2006. Twin victories over England during qualification helped to make him one of the most noted young coaches in Europe, sought by English clubs, among others, yet loyal enough to his compatriots to stay put on a mere £75,000 a year.
Reciprocal respect was accorded when Bilic's Croatia fared less well on the road to the World Cup in South Africa, losing 4-1 in Zagreb to Fabio Capello's England and 5-1 in the London return. The Croatian FA kept him on. Indeed they increased his salary to something that a manager in, say, the Championship might find more acceptable. Bilic claims never to have considered stepping down. At least not until qualification for Euro 2012 had been secured. ''I didn't want to leave as a loser,'' he said. But after the tournament he will join Lokomotiv Moscow.
While the club game will keep him busier and more prosperous, it will never capture his heart like the national cause – and, when he says that you believe him, because Croatians can be proud to a fault. Bilic never apologised for events that day in Paris when, having been pushed by Blanc, he fell holding a forehead that had not been touched and rose only after the defender now in charge of the French national team had been shown the red card. But Bilic did own up to cheating and testified that even this had involved Croatia's renowned teamwork: the advice to make a meal of it had apparently come from his fellow centre-back, Igor Stimac.
So now he faces the Irish, themselves the victims of cheating when Thierry Henry's hand eased France to the 2010 World Cup. Both teams see this as a final ahead of its time, knowing that points lost will be hard to claw back against Spain and Italy.
Bilic paid lavish tribute to Ireland's team ethic and "amazing'' defensive discipline but insisted that his men will spare no effort in seeking to break them down with a passing game orchestrated by Luka Modric and, if necessary, the aerial threat Nikica Jelavic should pose if Darijo Srna's crossing, as promised by Bilic, surpasses that of his old clubmate Tony Hibbert's at Everton. Srna became arguably the best crosser in Europe when David Beckham went to Los Angeles, so this is less a slight on Hibbert than a challenge to another character familiar to the patrons of Goodison Park, Richard Dunne.
According to Bilic, the Croatians will become potential champions if victory over Ireland builds a head of steam and part of the reason, he says, is Everton's centre-forward. "Jelavic is definitely one of the reasons we feel strong and very confident. He's in form after making an unbelievable impact at Everton and has impressed everyone.''
So perhaps one deal will affect the outcome in Poznan: the extremely astute one done by David Moyes when he took Jelavic from Rangers.
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