Croatia try to emulate heroes of their golden age

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The Independent Football

Robert Prosinecki was in the press stands, a reminder of Croatia's recent and successful past, in particular their emotional run to third place in the World Cup six years ago.

This match must have been particularly poignant for the gifted former Barcelona midfielder as he had faced France in the semi-finals of that tournament. The Balkan country had even taken the lead against the hosts and dared to dream of a first World Cup final before succumbing to Lilian Thuram's two goals.

Prosinecki went on to Portsmouth for one season and is still quite new to life after football but he was following the progress of his compatriots closely, as England's scouts were surely doing. Croatia are the final group opponents for Wayne Rooney and Co next Monday.

In the wake of England's victory in Coimbra, Croatia's task was simple to understand but seemingly difficult to accomplish. Win here and draw with England. They came so close. Instead they must beat England in Lisbon to reach the quarter-finals at their expense. The heirs to Prosinecki, Davor Suker and Alen Boksic do not have the reputations that trio enjoyed six years ago but it is in tournaments like this where names are made.

For Suker, read Dado Prso. While the former enjoyed a European Cup and life with Real Madrid, the latter has decided Rangers are for him next season. The pony-tailed forward is fresh from reaching the Champions' League final last month with Monaco and lashed in the second goal with the sort of relish that will get Ibrox excited next season.

If England are to be on their guard, it is in giving Croatia the whiff of victory. They were happy to coast through their opening game against the Swiss and seemed similarly becalmed in the first half against the European Championship holders. That was a feeling compounded by Igor Tudor's first-half own goal and Otto Baric's side were facing up to an almost inevitable and tame exit from Euro 2004. The second half saw a different attitude, as they realised they had only 45 minutes to save their tournament. Suddenly Milan Rapaic had drilled his penalty past Fabien Barthez and then four minutes later, with their tails up, Prso was in position for his strike.

For 12 minutes France looked a shambles while Croatia - and an increasingly animated Prosinecki - were allowed to dream once more. They were in charge of the game and leading the group, simultaneously threatening France's own presence at Euro 2004, before committing the sort of mistake that divides the contenders from the also-rans at this level. Tudor's back-pass was short and the goalkeeper's clearance was blocked, letting David David Trezeguet roll the ball into the empty net.

It was a costly sort of error - Steven Gerrard knows all about those - and one that may ultimately see Croatia return to Zagreb and Split next week. But England cannot say they have not been warned.