10 November ~ Croatian football is in the dumps. A general depression set in as the national side slumped to second place in their Euro 2012 qualifying group. They finished behind the bankrupt Greeks following a shambolic defeat in Athens, which was preceded by an embarrassing loss in Georgia. Slaven Bilic's five-year reign will undoubtedly end if Turkey are not overcome in the play-off, which takes place tomorrow and Tuesday. The team has simply floundered, with strange formations failing to click. Only an unintended substitution in the final qualifier against Latvia saved the day.
The team were going nowhere in a match they had to win to have a chance of overhauling Greece. The Greeks were even doing them a favour by contriving to lose to Georgia. In the match against Latvia, Nico Krancjar fluffed chance after chance and Eduardo da Silva was having one of his anonymous games. Only the Bundesliga-based hero and former Dinamo Zagreb prima donna Mario Mandzukic was much of a threat to the impregnable Latvian backline.
Then, after half time, Krancjar saved the day and pulled a muscle. He came off and Bilic was forced to introduce Ivan Perisic on the left. Shortly afterwards, he tore through the Latvian right side and flung over the cross that Eduardo nodded in. The crowd in Rijeka – Croatia's third city, chosen to host the final match – sighed with relief. Shortly after, however, Greece came from behind and relegated Bilic's team back into the play-offs.
Croatian fans do not hold out much hope that Turkey can be beaten even though they are hardly a team full of quality players. Croats know about Guus Hiddink – but he, like Bilic, doesn't have too great a recent record. They will have heard of Hamed Altintop. The odd one might have come across Colin Kazim-Richards, Brighton & Hove Albion's former star striker who ended up at Fenerbahce and, overlooked by Fabio Capello, found a long lost Turkish ancestor. Otherwise, ask a Croatian to name a famous Turk and they'll say Mesut Ozil or Gokhan Inler.
In the build-up to the game, the press have been fussing over Vedran Corluka's chances of playing in central defence. It's not yet clear if he will make it. Whatever happens, the sometimes stalwart, sometimes carthorse Joe Simunic – the centre-back who received three yellow cars from Graham Poll at the 2006 Wold Cup – will be there. The reliable Domogoj Vida will continue his impressive form at left-back, while captain Darijo Srna will patrol the right flank. Defensive midfielder Danijel Pranjic, starved of proper football at Bayern Munch, might get a look in. Otherwise Luka Modric, Eduardo and Mandzukic will provide the spine.
Many would like to see the great new hope, 17-year-old Mateo Kovacic, in the side. He has been the one bright spark in Dinamo Zagreb's failed Champions League campaign (played four, lost four, goals for nil, goals against loads). He will probably get his chance when the new regime comes in, just as Bilic promoted Modric, Eduardo et al back in 2006. A sign that Bilic's once high standing is not what it was is that he is no longer mentioned when a Premier League vacancy comes up. Time to dust off the guitar. Chris Frean