Glenn Moore: Cruel exit as Croatia are forced to take the English way out

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The Independent Football

It is perhaps apt, if cruel, that having taken England’s place at Euro 2008, Croatia should depart the English way, on penalties at the quarter-final stage. To English eyes the tears and the despair were horribly familiar and it was impossible not to sympathise, but the question pre-occupying one Italian was, ‘How will this affect England’s forthcoming World Cup qualification opponents?’

England go to Zagreb in September, just 81 days’ time. Fabio Capello deliberately chose to play England’s most difficult fixture early in the belief that, whatever happened in this tournament, Croatia would suffer a reaction. There was also the possibility that Bilic might have moved on, throwing the whole shebang into chaos.

That looks unlikely now, he will surely feel he has unfinished business with this team. But some players, especially the unfortunate trio who failed from the spot, might take time to recover.

Bilic himself admitted, “The last two minutes are something I cannot describe, it will haunt us for the rest of our lives. It is impossible to forget but we have to go on. The qualifiers are imminent. We will weep for a few more days but this is life. Tomorrow is a new day, the sun will rise. My players have a strong character. We will come back, and come back stronger.”

Bilic added: “I have no recriminations for my players, I am proud of them, but we are sorry and unhappy because we thought we could go all the way in this tournament.”

This was Capello’s fourth viewing of Croatia here and he again witnessed the technical expertise and fluid movement which did for his predecessor. While Turkey’s intelligent resistance showed Croatia can be frustrated the road to South Africa 2010 still looks tricky.

In Luka Modric they had the game’s best player, the little man’s ability to spin out of challenges and into space will serve him well at Tottenham. Alongside Niko Kovac was a reliable foil while there was pace on the flanks and clever running in attack. But the injured Eduardo was missed, chances went to waste, and Fatih Terim’s men nudged them out of the competition.

Capello will have been encouraged by the way Turkey stifled Croatia but he knows it would be risk to try and to do it the same way in Zagreb in September. It is hard to imagine England’s players rotating the ball the way Turkey did, and harder still to think of an Englishman, other than the German-schooled Owen Hargreaves, who could switch from right-back to midfield, and vice versa, the way Hamit Altintop and Sabri Sarioglu did.

Terim, who revealed Turkey did not practice penalties, said, “I always tell the players, ‘never give up’.” Remembering the volatility of Turkish celebrations he added, in a message to fans at home, “Take care. Don’t make our joy someone else’s tragedy.”

“They have that something else,” said Bilic ruefully, “that something you need. If they continue to be lucky, and don’t give up, they might even reach the final.”