Warhorse under dark cloud

says Croatia may be weighed down by an emotional burden
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The Independent Online
The trouble with so-called dark horses is that the public never knows whether they are still holding something back after poor performances or whether those performances were actually the summit of their capabilities. If this is the case, the dark horse is deemed fully exposed and any further failure condemns it to the knackers' yard.

Croatia have not earned an appointment with the vet just yet, thanks to last Tuesday's late win over Turkey that gave them a solid basis for advancement from the awkward Group D. But nor have they entirely banished the memory of their utterly passive performance in the goalless friendly against England at Wembley in April. Conspiracy theorists said they were saving them- selves for the real thing; that this national side, though recent-born, was studded with enough star players to make a considerable impact on Euro 96.

Yet, as the torrential rain and chilly night enveloped a forgettable match in Nottingham last Tuesday, the Croatians had come no nearer to letting us know the extent of their abilities. They had clearly settled for a draw against an enthusiastic but toothless Turkish side when Aljosa Asano- vic's splendid pass out of defence allowed the 23-year-old substitute Goran Vlaovic to sprint away for a well-taken goal completely out of context with the 85 minutes which had preceded it.

The Croatian coach, Miroslav Blazevic, talked Turkey after the game, thereby putting his side's win into a more favourable perspective. "We knew Turkey would be strong opponents but we did not know they would be so strong, and that is why this win is so special and so important."

Blazevic then fingered today's opponents, Denmark, as "the probable favourites to win Group D" when the rest of the world will surely have Portugal down as group winners. Blazevic's crea- tive dissembling continued the next morning when he confident- ly suggested that both his major injury worries, Alen Boksic (head wound) and his captain Zvonimir Boban (knee trouble), would be fit for today. To other eyes, though, the influential Boban already looked to be carrying an injury into the Turkish game that resulted in this midfield powerhouse carpet-slippering his way around a no man's land in front of his defence. His movements were limited in ambition and suspiciously lame in execution, although he still showed two glimpses of the form which had made him a star at Milan.

Both occurred in a first half when Croatian passivity was at its worst. On one occasion, Bo- ban calmly controlled a ball dropping from the rain clouds with a velvet touch of his left foot, before sweeping a pass away with his right. This was bettered by a first-time volleyed pass which left the ace striker Davor Suker a run on goal. Sadly, Suker, who went on to miss two relatively easy headers, was also disguising his true form that night.

Boban, substituted 12 minutes into the second half, conceded afterwards that it had been "an ugly game". "It was not a great performance, it was impossible to find a rhythm. But we are going to play better against Denmark because it is impossible to play another game like this."

Maybe not. No team came into Euro 96 with more emotional baggage than Croatia. And one suspects that it may well be weighing them down, with the fear of failure too dreadful a prospect for their war-ravaged, but fiercely patriotic, nation. The goalscorer, Vlaovic, encapsulated the paradox - his winning goal brought no platitudes of self-congratulation afterwards, but sombre memories of his grandfather being killed when a shell exploded outside the family home. The darkness of this particular horse is still the shadow of war.