Experienced Baric aims to end the Eriksson era

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The Independent Football

Otto Baric, Croatia's coach, once got Sir Bobby Robson the sack and would have little compunction about threatening Sven Goran Eriksson with the same fate by beating England this evening. Were his red-and-white chequer-board team to upset the odds and win tonight's game, thereby qualifying from Group B at England's expense, there would undoubtedly be calls for the Swede to go, whether or not the Football Association could afford to pay him off.

As of last Saturday, Baric is 71, making him the exact contemporary of Robson, a respected colleague in the dog-eat-dog world of football management, but one whose career he cannot forget undermining a decade ago.

Ask him about Croatia's 3-1 defeat by England at Ipswich last August and he replies: "I have very good memories of this match, first because I met Bobby Robson, who remembered the match between his Sporting Lisbon and my Salzburg when my team beat his and he had to leave."

Robson, here with ITV, recalls every detail of the tie, from how his rookie goalkeeper let in two 30-yarders, to a winning goal in the final minute of extra-time, and the embarrassment of his young assistant - a certain Jose Mourinho - in explaining that the Sporting chairman had told the players it was a disgrace. Robson was sacked two days later.

More relevantly, both men will feel that the game they watched at Portman Road offers Croatia hope tonight. Despite losing, the visitors had a particularly good first half, exposing Ashley Cole on England's left flank and forcing so many saves from David James that he was named man of the match. "We made good chances and for the first half of the match were the better team," Baric said yesterday at his squad's hotel out in the country east of Lisbon. "We showed we really can play against England at equal level."

After making a good impression six years after independence at Euro '96 (when Baric was assistant manager), and an even better one when finishing third at the 1998 World Cup, Croatia were eliminated in Euro 2000 qualifying by the Republic of Ireland, and an ageing team then fell apart in Japan two years ago with defeats by Mexico and Ecuador.

Qualifying this time was patchy, Baric's new side finishing just above Belgium but behind Bulgaria, and then edged out Slovenia in a play-off, when Dado Prso scored in both legs. Opening the tournament with a dreadful goalless draw against Switzerland, they improved significantly against France on Thursday and would have won a momentous victory had Portsmouth's Ivica Mornar not spurned a glorious chance in the final minute. A goal then would also have transferred much of the pressure tonight onto England, who would have been the team having to win.

Baric is sensitive to the fact that most people understandably talked down his team's chance of making the quarter-finals once the draw was made.

"I think England are a very good team and they were unfortunate to lose against France. But I'm very proud that we've found ourselves in the situation where we are in a position to decide the situation in the group. From the start we've been declared as outsiders, and two other teams have been declared as candidates for the next round. I was very happy we played such a good match against France, such strong opposition, but I was not satisfied with the result as we felt we deserved to win."

For an old trouper who has been around so long, Baric might be expected to be immune to whatever appears in the press, but, like Robson, he is often annoyed by it. Yesterday he went into a long speech about reports in "German and Austrian papers" that there was a lack of team spirit in the camp, adding: "I read that there is some sort of disorder, that players are arguing among themselves. I'd like to say there are no problems and we're 100 per cent together. Yesterday during dinner, we had a small birthday party for me with a great atmosphere and all the players singing."

Born in Austria, he has held more than 20 coaching jobs, flitting between his native country, Germany, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Croatia, where he took over the national team two years ago charged with finding some new talent. Prso proved to be the striker the team needed after the decline of Davor Suker, and there are strong, experienced defenders in a physically powerful side. Boris Zivkovic, one of Harry Redknapp's shorter-lived signings at Portsmouth, is now at Stuttgart and is likely to come back into the side to mark David Beckham. But the first-choice goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa had to be replaced just before the tournament and the team lacks a real playmaker.

Good Goran, bad Goran; good Croatia, bad Croatia. Who knows which will turn up tonight?