The message from Croatia on Saturday was clear: they may already have qualified, but there will be no thought of playing out a convenient draw at Wembley on Wednesday. Their 2-0 defeat to FYR Macedonia on Saturday was irrelevant in terms of qualification, but, make no mistake, Croatia's players were furious to have allowed Slaven Bilic's 14-game unbeaten run since taking over as national coach to come to an end.
"We're not used to being defeated," the Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva said. "We've got to get our heads up and make sure we return from London unbeaten. It was tough in Skopje, as we knew it would be, and the most important thing is that we qualified. At half-time when we heard the result from Israel we were excited and started celebrating and congratulating each other. But we didn't want to lose this game."
Eduardo himself was withdrawn after 55 minutes. He had an effort cleared off the line, but, like Croatia's two most creative players, Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar, he had struggled to make an impression against Macedonia's industry in boggy conditions. "Maybe on television it looks like you can play on that, but the pitch had a big influence on the result," Kranjcar said. The Portsmouth midfielder, too, is adamant that Croatia will be giving their all on Wednesday. "Against Russia, Israel showed they are honest and proud people, and we have to behave in the same way."
Ineffectual they may have been on Saturday, but it is that trio that has been largely responsible for Croatia's resurgence, and with Zdravko Mamic, the vice-president of Dynamo Zagreb meeting the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich last week, it seems that Luka Modric is likely to join the other two in the Premier League next season. The playmaker has become emblematic of Bilic's success.
When the draw for this qualifying campaign was made in January last year, it was portrayed as Sven Goran Eriksson's parting gift to English football. "At least I did my job today," he smiled, after watching Uefa apparatchiks group England with none of the recognised giants of European football. "I think England should be rather pleased with the draw." They were. It is easy to sling accusations of complacency, and there probably is some truth in Bilic's assertion that England were "a little bit too self-confident", but there were good reasons for confidence.
Even those who recognised Israel's impressive home record, the likelihood of Srecko Katanec galvanising Macedonia and the probability of Russia improving under Guus Hiddink had little reason to fear Croatia. However bad England were at the World Cup, Croatia were worse. As they slipped out in the group stage with a 2-2 draw against Australia that should have been a defeat, the central defender Stjepan Tomas played with the bottom of his shorts tucked back into the waistband. It was probably supposed to lend him a martial air, but it gave the impression he was wearing a giant nappy. He later complained that they had been too long and too baggy and he had felt impeded by them, but the truth is rather that Croatia were constrained by a 3-4-1-2 formation that had come to seem increasingly outmoded.
The 3-4-1-2 has long been the staple of the Balkan game, and it was with that system, albeit a hugely attacking variant of it, that Croatia reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1998. The debate on whether it is still viable in an age in which so few teams play with two out and out forwards – as the Partizan Belgrade coach Miroslav Djukic explains, "there's no point having three centre-backs to deal with one striker" – seemed interminable, and it is arguably Bilic's greatest achievement to have finally settled the issue in favour of a flat back four. Crucially, though, he has done it while remaining true to the traditions of Croatian football.
Before Saturday, Croatia had conceded only four goals in qualifying, while still playing crisp, attacking football of sufficient aesthetic quality that when Eduardo claimed "Croatia play the most beautiful football in Europe", he could not instantly be dismissed. The great fear of abandoning the 3-4-1-2 was that it would mean doing away with the playmaker, which remains the most revered position in Croatian football (Argentina, for whom Juan Roman Riquelme, probably the most classical No 10 still in action, scored twice in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Bolivia on Saturday is racked by the same argument).
Bilic's system, though, far from doing away with the role, has managed to incorporate two – Kranjcar and Modric, who play alongside Darijo Srna, a wing-back with a sumptuous right foot, and ahead of Niko Kovac in a 4-1-3-2. It may not be the heady days of 1998, when Miroslav Blazevic somehow crammed Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Aljosa Asanovic into the same side – "the most creative midfield ever," Bilic reckons – but is certainly better than the stodginess Zlatko Kranjcar's side produced in Germany.
"I'm proud, not only as a former defender, but also because the defence is the basis of every successful team," Bilic said. "We play attacking football – more than half our team are attack-minded – and we can play attacking football precisely because we have a good defence which opens up a number of options." He is right to be so, and yet even he would admit that Croatia would not have qualified with such ease had it not been for the extraordinary goalscoring form of Eduardo. Ten goals in the qualifying campaign tells its own story.
Even there Bilic must take great credit, for he recognised his potential early and nurtured him through the Under-21s. As early as 2004 he was telling journalists, "I have a boy who will do things."
The notion that England had held Croatia comfortably in Zagreb is farcical, but Bilic was certainly becoming anxious when, after an hour, Eduardo looped a header back across Paul Robinson to break the deadlock. Against Estonia in Tallinn, similarly, Croatia were becoming frustrated when Eduardo seized on a loose ball outside the box and whipped a low shot into the bottom corner. He is an arch-opportunist, the sort of player who can win a game that is drifting towards stalemate.
Eduardo has started only three Premier League games for Arsenal this season, but that is more down to an early injury and the form of others than any deficiency on his part. He certainly seems unfazed by his lack of regular first-team action. "I'm very patient," he said.
"The important thing is that I am fresh and healthy. Arsenal is a big club and we are playing brilliant football, so I play some games and not others. I've scored some goals [one against Sparta Prague in a Champions League qualifier and two against Sheffield United in the League Cup], so I'm happy."
This is not the first time he has had to wait to make his mark, and at least this time he is doing it in congenial circumstances. When, in 1999, the 16-year-old Eduardo was foisted on Dynamo Zagreb by an agent, it rapidly became obvious the club had little interest in him.
In his early months there, he slept on the floor of a storeroom at the stadium, and ate only what the club restaurant would give him. Given that it opened only on weekdays, he regularly had to make a couple of eggs last him the weekend.
Mamic, then a lowly club official with the ambition to become an agent, took pity on Eduardo, found him an apartment and set up an internet connection so that he could get in touch with the family to whom he had not spoken for several months.
His youth team performances saw him elevated to train with the first team in 2002, but, hampered by an injury he had dared not mention, he did not impress. Blazevic, then the head coach, would have discarded him, but the youth team coach Duro Bago persuaded him to give the young Brazilian a second chance.
It was indisputably the right decision: in 110 games for Dynamo he hit 75 goals, including 34 in 32 games in his final season before joining Arsenal.
Eduardo is married to a Croat and has Croatian citizenship, but his Carioca origins are far from forgotten. He lists City of God, Fernando Meirelles's take on the drugs gangs of Rio de Janeiro, as his favourite film, and he will take any opportunity to rhapsodise about Romario. He may share an eye for goal with the former Barcelona striker, but he is a far more modest figure. "People forget that our midfield scores goals," he said. "Kranjcar is great. Srna and Niko Kovac are the spine of the team. Luka Modric is our grandmaster."
His team-mates, though, are in no doubt as to his importance. "The whole team is good," Modric said. "But if you look at the statistics then you see that Eduardo is special."Reuse content