Currently lead Group G
9 October ~ As Europe's World Cup qualifying groups reach their conclusions over the coming days, most neutrals will be hoping that Bosnia-Herzegovina can maintain their position as leaders of Group G and qualify for the finals automatically. With a home game against Liechtenstein on Friday, followed by a trip to Lithuania next Tuesday, the team should fulfil these hopes. Part of Bosnia's appeal to the uncommitted lies in the sense that it is simply their turn, after neighbours Serbia and Croatia, to experience a major tournament.
They are also the purists' choice, especially when compared with Greece, the only other team in the group with a chance of going to Brazil. The Greeks have been as admirably dogged as ever over the course of this campaign, but their tally of nine goals in eight games does looks rather minimalist when set against the Bosnians' 25.
More than half of Bosnia's goals, however, have been scored in two away fixtures – in Liechtenstein and against a Latvia side reduced to ten men after just ten minutes. No one doubts their ability to turn on the style in relatively easy games but there is a common perception, stemming from defeats to Portugal in play-offs for both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, that they are "chokers". It was this reputation that they seemed to be living up to when losing 1-0 at home to Slovakia in the first-leg of a qualifying double-header last month.
The label is unfair. Losing to Portugal is hardly a disgrace, while Slovakia retain a capacity to surprise when written off, which they were following an inept display in a 1-1 draw with Liechtenstein in June. In any case, Bosnia pre-empted further criticism with a thrilling 2-1 win over the Slovaks in the return game in Zilina. Trailing 1-0 until the 70th minute, Bosnia needed plenty of bloody-mindedness to turn this contest around.
Also notable was coach Safet Susic's tactical flexibility. After witnessing Slovakia's dominance of central midfield in Zenica, Susic switched from 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 shape for the away fixture. While Edin Dzeko adapted well to a lone striker‘s role, and Vedad Ibisevic to a wide-midfield position, the real key to the formation‘s success was Haris Medunjanin's ability to win and distribute the ball from just in front of his defence. It helps too when a substitute – Izet Hajrovic – climbs off the bench and almost immediately smashes home a 30-yard winner.
But as important as any of this, and perhaps the most compelling reason of all to hope Bosnia get to Brazil, was the support they had in Zilina. The 7,000-plus who had travelled up from the Balkans formed the vast majority of the crowd in the hosts‘ 11,000-capacity stadium.
In defiance of some of the predictions of Slovakia's tabloid media, the visitors' good nature charmed the locals. And the backing they gave their team was both fervent and unrelenting. This, according to Slovakia coach Jan Kozak, was the truly decisive factor in the result. "Bosnia are a really good side but I think that if all had been equal in the stands, we would have won," he said.
Susic didn't disagree. He encouraged Slovakia to "play as well in Greece (on Friday) as they've played against us", yet seemed confident that automatic qualification can be secured without outside help. His chief concern, looking beyond the Liechtenstein game, was whether Kaunas' 8,248-capacity Darius and Girenas Stadium, the venue for Tuesday's Lithuania fixture, will adequately accommodate his team's support. "Mind you," he added, "they could have a 100,000-capacity stadium and it wouldn't be big enough for all the Bosnians who'd want to be there." James Baxter