By Mark Robinson
Holders France meet Croatia this evening in the second of the day’s Euro 2004 Group B matches. France will be confident of making it two wins from two games after their smash and grab victory against England last Sunday, while the Croatians will be looking for a positive result to take into their final group match against England on Monday.
The match at the Estadio Dr Magalhaes Pessoa in Leiria will be the fourth encounter between the two nations and only the second competitive match. Their last high profile encounter was at the semi finals of the 1998 World Cup, where the French triumphed 2-1 on their way to lifting the trophy.
Tottenham bound France coach Jacques Santini is expected to make changes to his line-up this evening.
Chelsea’s fit again Marcel Desailly is widely tipped for a recall in the middle of the French back four and will reclaim the skipper’s armband from Zinedine Zidane, whose last gasp brace against England stole the points. With Manchester United’s Mikael Silvestre carrying a yellow card, he is the most likely to make way for Desailly who should earn his 116th cap for Les Bleus.
“I am back at 100 per cent,” the France captain explained to the press yesterday. “I have worked hard over the last few days and I am ready to go if the coach selects me.”
“But whether I play is not important. It is much more important that the team qualifies. We cannot help being the favourites – if England felt inferior to us then so must Croatia.”
William Gallas may also step down to make way for the more creative Willy Sagnol of Bayern Munich, meaning that Desailly will probably be partnered in the heart of the defence by Juventus’ Lilian Thuram, who has also passed the 100 cap mark for his country.
Roma’s Olivier Dacourt has been put on stand by to replace Claude Makelele alongside Patrick Vieira in central midfield, after Makelele left the Estadio de Luz on Sunday night with is arm in a sling following a tackle by England substitute Emile Heskey. Makelele has made a speedy recovery but Santini, with one eye on the challenges to come, will be reluctant to risk his fitness.
The Croatians are expected to pack the midfield and keep things very tight in an attempt to frustrate the French, tactics that very nearly worked for England on Sunday night. It is a game plan that Croatia also employed against Switzerland in their disappointing 0-0 draw with 10 man Switzerland on Sunday.
Santini is aware of the tactics that are likely to be employed against his team, and will look to playmaker and catalyst Zidane to provide the creativity to penetrate the Croatia defence.
“I don’t know if the coach Otto Baric is going to opt for a similar strategy to the one he used against the Swiss. If so, we will have to find the solutions to unlock the Croatians like we did against England,” the coach insisted.
Many of the questions posed by the French media this week have surrounded the form of star strikers Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, neither of whom have scored for France in 2004.
Regular watchers of both Arsenal and Juventus last season will find it difficult to believe that pressure is being applied to the two strikers but, with Louis Saha and Sidney Govou waiting patiently in the wings, Santini has felt it necessary to come out in defence of his first choice partnership.
“Does he need to score in every match, or dribble past everyone from the halfway line ?” the coach asked the press of Arsenal’s Henry. “He was decisive against England. The fact that he was alert enough to intercept a pass and win a penalty in the last minute of the match shows this.”
Santini also offered his support to Juventus striker Trezeguet, who last scored for France on the same night as Henry in a 3-0 win over Germany last November.
“All that was missing was the goal. Trezeguet went very close twice against England. Players of that standard are always asking themselves questions, and that’s because they want to be excellent all the time.”
Croatian coach Otto Baric took his players to Portugal’s national shrine at Fatima before training last night, in the hope of obtaining some divine inspiration to stop Zidane and company this evening.
In spite of a clean sheet in the opening draw against the Swiss, Baric is likely to recall Juventus star Igor Tudor for this evening’s game after he completed a suspension. Tudor, a versatile centre half or ball winning midfielder, is likely to replace Josip Simunic at centre back thus resuming his partnership with Robert Kovac.
Tudor is the most talented Croatian of his generation and, along with right back Dario Simic of Milan, is one of only two survivors from the 1998 squad. He has been blighted by injuries but will be crucial in Croatia’s quest to keep Henry, Zidane and company at bay.
Baric has come in for criticism for his team’s lacklustre second half display against the Swiss, as they failed to take advantage of Johann Vogel’s sending off just after half time. Baric has accepted responsibility but claims he expected more from his players.
“I tried to change things following the sending off but that didn’t work,” he said.
“I expected more from my players, especially as we had an extra man. All is not lost, though, as we always felt we had to win at least one more game anyway.”
Five Croatians are one yellow card away from missing the potentially deciding game against England, and for this reason Baric has admitted he will be ringing the changes.
Dado Prso, the Rangers striker, may be the most high profile casualty as Baric wants to be certain of his availability against England next week. Werder Bremen’s Ivan Klasnic may be the man to capitalise on Prso’s absence, with many in Croatia surprised that he wasn’t given a starting berth against the Swiss.
Klasnic was a valuable member of Werder Bremen’s double winning side, scoring 13 goals as they clinched the Bundesliga and the German Cup. The 24 year-old forward has been in Baric’s thoughts and the coach revealed he is close to making a decision.
“I’m going to make changes,” he told the press on Tuesday.
“I’m thinking about Klasnic; he’s close to the first eleven.”
CSKA Moscow’s Ivica Olic may be promoted from the left wing to support Klasnic up front, which may mean a recall in midfield for the experienced Milan Rapaic of Italian club Ancona. Niko Kovac, brother of centre half Robert, is expected to keep his place in central midfield, while Giovanni Rosso may take Ivica Mornar’s place on the right flank.
Goalkeeper Tomislav Butina insists that the Croatians have not been too despondent following the result against Switzerland, claiming that Croatia are confident they can shut out the dangerous French this evening and enter next week’s match against England confident of qualification.
“Although we may not have played at the quality level we desired on Sunday, we’re not out of hope for the game against France,” he argued.
“England are on the same level as we are and they kept it tight against the French so we can too.”
Meanwhile assistant coach Drazen Ladic insisted the Croatians will feel no pressure, despite the fact that England or Switzerland could move above them in the group with a victory in this afternoon’s Group B clash, as they are undisputed underdogs.
“Our goal is to stay undefeated against France, but we will play without pressure because we are not favourites,” he claimed.
“It would not be a tragedy to lose to a team like France.”
Croatia: Butina; Simic, R Kovac, Tudor, Simunic; Rosso, Bjelica, N Kovac, Rapaic; Olic, Klasnic
France: Barthez; Sagnol, Thuram, Desailly, Lizarazu; Pires, Dacourt, Vieira, Zidane; Henry, Trezeguet
Referee: K Milton Nielsen (Den)