Sun, Jun 08, 2008 - Page 18 News List

Bilic hoping Croatia play in tune

CO-HOSTS AND UNDERDOGSCoach Josef Hickerberger presides over Austria, the lowest-ranked team to appear at the championships, against Slaven Bilic’s Croatia

AFP , VIENNA

Croatia goalkeeper Mario Galinovic, left, defender Robert Kovac, front center, forward Mladen Petric, rear center, and forward Nikola Kalinic pass the ball during a training session in Bad Tatzmannsdorf, Austria, on Friday. Croatia face co-hosts and tournament underdogs Austria in Vienna today.

PHOTO: AP

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic wrote the theme song for the squad for their Euro 2008 campaign and today he will be hoping that they will sing in tune for their opening clash with co-hosts Austria.

It would be wholly appropriate that the 39-year-old songwriter-guitarist should see his belief that Croatia can be real contenders for the title begin in a winning fashion against a country better known for its alpine prowess and the setting for the classic musical The Sound of Music.

The Croats certainly looked impressive in qualifying, beating England twice, and it is a tribute to Bilic — who was already a favorite with the Croat fans after playing with a fractured hip in the 1998 World Cup finals through to the semi-final defeat by eventual champions France — that having injected a tired looking squad with youthful potential, that it has borne fruit.

No wonder that the unorthodox coach — who prefers sneakers and jeans to the usual suited attire of coaches — is brimming with confidence.

“I believe that we are strong enough to take the title,” said Bilic, who recently signed a two-year extension to his contract, dispelling the belief that he would be snapped up by a foreign club. “The team is both good and solid, we qualified for Euro from one of the more difficult groups and we most notably of all beat England on two occasions during the qualifiers.”

Bilic has in Nico Kranjcar — his father Zlatko was coach for the unsuccessful 2006 World Cup finals campaign — a creative playmaker who has enjoyed a good season for Portsmouth and it should be a delight to watch him teaming up with recent Tottenham Hotspur signing Luka Modric.

Certainly Kranjcar is looking forward to the possibility of shining on the international stage after playing for the less than glamorous Premiership side — albeit they won the FA Cup last term — and should he produce the goods then the reality of a move to known admirers Arsenal could well come true.

“I am excited and looking forward to the tournament because it is one of the major international trophies in the world,” said the 23-year-old, who has indicated, nonetheless, that he will stay with Pompey as they embark on an all too rare European adventure. “We, as a team, are always improving and have a great chance of going all the way. We showed against England in the qualifiers how good we can be and we aim to show that again in the finals. A lot of things have to happen and there is always an element of luck involved, but we have the players and the ability to make history.”

Austria have literally nothing to lose because nothing is expected of them as the lowest FIFA ranked team ever to appear in the finals — and they will need all the inspiration of memories past to get them a point against the Croats.

Their coach Josef Hickersberger has been present for both the highest moment and the lowest in Austrian soccer history — he was a player in the Austrian side that beat the then West Germany, the defending world champions in the 1978 World Cup and as a coach when Austria lost to the Faroe Islands in a Euro 1992 qualifier — and Bilic perhaps put it best when it came to assessing the Austrian team.

“The style in which the Austrians play is always the same,” Bilic said. “We have watched them as much as possible. They have changed their line-ups a lot, but that is for a simple reason — there are only three or four players who merit being selected the whole time.”

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