Croatia rest best players for England

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If, as we have been led to believe, the European Championship really is more competitive than the World Cup, then why are Croatia planning to select a weakened team against France this evening in Leiria?

If, as we have been led to believe, the European Championship really is more competitive than the World Cup, then why are Croatia planning to select a weakened team against France this evening in Leiria?

The Croatian manager, Otto Baric, has let it be known that he would prefer to "rest" several key players and sacrifice the game against the French, so as to then concentrate all the team's energies on the crucial meeting with England next Monday. So much for fair play.

"I believe one or two players from the starting XI will certainly miss the game against France," Croatia's assistant manager, Drazen Ladic, confirmed yesterday. "We must avoid getting more yellow cards [they picked five up against Switzerland on Sunday and were fined by Uefa] and need to preserve as much energy as possible for the match against England, which we believe will decide second place in the group."

The Croatian management are probably right in their thinking, but their actions leave a lot to be desired. By fielding a weakened team, and thus all but handing the three points to their opponents, Baric is doing France two huge favours. First, he will be smoothing Les Bleus' route to the quarter-finals; and second, he will probably be allowing Jacques Santini to rest his stars ahead of their final group match against the Swiss.

No wonder Santini looked so happy yesterday. "We are only concerned with what we have to do," said the Tottenham-bound coach, who hopes that his central midfielder Claude Makelele will recover in time from a minor collarbone injury, though Roma's Olivier Dacourt is on standby.

"Will they play in the same way, or with the same players as they did against Switzerland [during Sunday's drab goalless draw]? We'll have to wait and see. Either way, all that matters to us is that with a win on Thursday [today], we'll be through to the quarter-finals. It's that's simple."

Victory, too, should prove relatively straightforward for the buoyant French, who have now not lost in 19 games. The Croatians were poor in Leiria on Sunday, even allowing for the fact that it was very hot and the Swiss put 10 men behind the ball right from the off. Only Dado Prso, who signed for Rangers before the tournament kicked-off, offered any real threat going forward, while the defence looked shaky without Juventus's Igor Tudor, who returns tonight after serving a one-match suspension.

The match will certainly be less intense than the action-packed 1998 World Cup semi-final, when an exciting Croatian team went ahead thanks to Davor Suker before Lilian Thuram scored his first two - and to date only - international goals to take France through to the final. "Obviously, when I hear the word Croatia I immediately think about that semi-final at the Stade de France," said Thuram, who won his 100th cap against England in Lisbon. "It brings back lots of strange feelings."

Have those same emotions returned ahead of the 2004 meeting? "Honestly, no," insisted Thuram, who plans to delay his international retirement until after the 2006 World Cup. "That incredible game of '98 is just something that happened to me. I was lucky that day to be able to give myself and millions of others a lot of joy. It was a magnificent occasion, but I could not, and have not, lived on that for the last six years."

Santini looks likely to continue with the Thuram-Mikaël Silvestre partnership in central defence, even though the team captain, Marcel Desailly, is fit again following a knee injury. Ever the diplomat, Thuram refused to disagree publicly with his manager's decision. Instead, he simply gave his assessment of the defensive display against England. "It was OK," he said, "but the entire back-line need to talk to each other a lot more. There is clearly still much to improve on, but we have had time to look at what went wrong on Sunday night and we will get better."

There is, however, one statistic that is unlikely to improve for Thuram, especially now that he has moved from right-back into the centre. "To be honest," he joked, "I think that I could play up front and still not score another goal for France. Those two in 98 were an accident." He paused. "But you never know."

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