By Ciaran O Raghallaigh in Poland
WHEN their newspapers are not comparing ‘beautiful Niko Kranjcar‘ to Johnny Depp, Croatians are generally agreed upon one thing – Ireland are ugly.
While Slaven Bilic, fairly reasonably it must be said, admitted Croatia were targeting Sunday’s game, it was hardly the type of stuff that would be taped to the dressing room door.
When you’re in a group with defending Euro and World Champions Spain, and Italy, picking Ireland out as the softest touch is as obvious as saying you fancy your chances of meeting a nice blonde in the Playboy house.
But Eduardo went a step further this week when he told the national press of his cunning plan to get through Group C.
“We’ll do it with four points. Beat Ireland and draw with Italy.”
The way the former Arsenal striker says it, it sound as easy as diving after a phantom tackle from Artur Boruc in the Champions League. (No Eduardo, we don’t forget cheats in Ireland.)
But are they right to be so cocky?
Jelavic proved his ability in Austria and Scotland before making a cut-price move to Goodison Park from cash-strapped Rangers, and immediately became a hero at the club with 11 goals in 16 games.
But his international record is much less impressive. Despite scoring on his debut in 2009 (against Qatar, so we’re not sure it counts), he has scored just once more in 18 games.
He started just three of Croatia’s qualifying games (with no goals), but with Olic out and Eduardo not at 100%, he’s likely to get more time to make an impact this time around.
Dunne hopes to box-off Jelavic threat
Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger were quick to namecheck the Everton man this week, and at 6’1”, and an uncanny ability to finish with his first touch, he is certainly one to stay close to in the box.
Much of Ireland’s efforts will come on the wing and in central midfield – with Robbie Keane likely to drop deep and keep an eye on Luka Modric, Croatia’s ‘quarterback’.
Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady will cover more ground than they’d like to, given Croatia’s fondness for fluid movement, and expect a congested midfield for much of the game.
Ognjen Vukojevic, the Dynamo Kiev midfielder likely to partner Modric, has a healthy respect for Ireland’s defensive capabilities and warns that, just as Gary Barlow says, Croatia will ‘need a little patience’.
“The fact that they have not lost in 14 games, and have conceded only three goals is remarkable,” said the footballer with a name made for Scrabble record-breaking.
“Trapattoni has planted in them a famous Italian defense, so we will need great patience. The ideal scenario would be to score a goal in the first 20 minutes or half an hour but we’ll have to take every little chance we get.
“I’m sure there will be lots of opportunities and I think I could checkmate the Irish,” said Vukojevic.
That last line could maybe have been translated better, but you get the gist.
However, Ireland will be boosted by the concerns surrounding Vedran Corluka‘s fitness (never the sharpest player, as it is), and the absence of Dejan Lovren in defence.
The others are slow, and prone to mistakes, ensuring that should Ireland manage to get to the final third, chances will come.
Ireland 5/2, Croatia 13/10, Draw 21/10