Team profile: Croatia ready to spring surprise

Eliminated in the first round of World Cup 2006, Croatia have turned their football fortunes around going into the European Championships thanks to a new wave of players.

Some of them — like Eduardo da Silva, Mladen Petric and Ivan Rakitic — have been successfully drafted into the national squad after having been coached by senior team coach Slaven Bilic at youth level. That approach has been credited with giving Croatia the tag of

“dark horses” for the Euro 2008 championships.

“Croatia is a hit!” said Ivica Osim, a former Japan coach who hails from neighbouring Bosnia.

“Slaven Bilic is doing a very good job, he has an excellently composed squad and Croatia are among the dark horses. They can certainly go very far,” Osim said.Such optimism has stirred Euro 2008 fever in Croatia, where football fans are snapping up as many tickets as they can get their hands on ahead of the competition. To make room for them, however, Bilic has had to give up an old guard that included Marko Babic, Bosko Balaban, and Jurica Vranjes.

Introduced into Croatia’s senior squad as soon as Bilic took over after the 2006 World Cup failure, Arsenal striker Eduardo was ruled out of Euro 2008 as he is still recovering from a serious injury. Chosen in place of his main forward was Petric, who has been at German side Borussia Dortmund since August 2007.

Known for his pace, he scored the third goal for Croatia’s 3-2 victory against England at Wembley which eliminated their high-profile opponents from the Euro finals. So far he has scored nine goals in 22 matches for Croatia.

Petric is not the only one in the squad from the “Swiss school,” as there is also midfielder Rakitic, 20, and a talented sharp-shooter currently at Schalke 04. Dynamo’s captain Luka Modric is considered the “brains” of the team. He is so highly rated at home that not only is he considered the best player in the Croatian league, but also one of the best midfielders in Europe, by some local experts. Another from the new wave of stars is 22-year-old Vedran Corluka, the Manchester City defender.