Croatia draw on past glories for Italy test

 

While they are looking ahead to tomorrow's match against Italy, Croatia's players are also looking back to 1994.

Since gaining independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia have never lost against Italy, beating the four-time world champions three times and drawing twice.

It is one match in Palermo nearly 20 years ago that is giving the Croats particular inspiration for the match in Poznan. In November 1994, a Croatia team led by Davor Suker, Alen Boksic and Zvonimir Boban beat the then World Cup runners-up 2-1 in qualifying for Euro 96.

"It's the first victory where Croatia beat such a big side, and it was a big celebration in Croatia because it was unexpected," the Croatia defender Vedran Corluka said yesterday. "And from that moment, Croatia started to play very good football until now."

Croatia built on that success and qualified for Euro 96, reaching the quarter-finals. Two years later, the team did even better, reaching the semi-finals at the World Cup in France.

The Croatia coach, Slaven Bilic, remembers that night against Italy as a decisive moment in the country's emergence as an independent footballing nation.

"We were so hungry, we couldn't wait for the world or Europe to recognize us as Croatia – not as Boban, Suker, Boksic, but as Croatia," said Bilic, who was a defender in that team. "That was the first time that Europe said, 'Oh wow, these guys are really good.'

"That will always be one of the biggest victories in Croatian history and those guys who are going to play against Italy on Thursday, they were kids at the time, and they ask us every now and then about that game," Bilic said.

Croatia can advance to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals with another victory over the Italians.

"I don't believe that much in tradition but it's nice to know that we never lose against Italy," said Bilic, whose first victory as Croatia coach was against Italy in August 2006.

After playing Italy, the Croats will face defending champions Spain in their final Group C match. "I think we are going into every game like a must-win, but especially this one, because if we win... we go to the quarterfinals before the final game," Corluka said. "But even if we draw we are still in it."

After Italy's 1-1 draw in their opener against Spain, the coach Cesare Prandelli's biggest selection issue seems to be whether to replace the Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli with the veteran Antonio Di Natale.

Di Natale replaced Balotelli against the world champions and scored 10 minutes after his introduction.

Whoever, is chosen is bound to be partnered with Antonio Cassano, who admitted yesterday he is still surprised to be at the European Championship after his unexpected health scare last year.

Cassano returned to play in April for Milan following a six-month spell on the sidelines after undergoing minor heart surgery.

"I honestly didn't think I would play at the European Championship," Cassano said. "I was scared. When you arrive to a certain point where it is a case of live or die, everything else becomes secondary.

"I saw the future as grey, very grey, but fortunately I am here. I have been blessed, and even if I am not a believer I do feel I have been blessed."

Prandelli never gave up hope of getting the striker back in time for the tournament.

The 29-year-old Cassano was Italy's top scorer in qualifying with six goals. Moreover, Italy had already lost Villarreal forward Giuseppe Rossi to a serious knee injury.

"If there is one thing that saddens me about this European Championship it is that Giuseppe Rossi is not here," Cassano said. "He was very important to us."

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