This year Croatia have a difficult group in the Euros, facing current world champions Spain, the second most successful national team in the world cup, Italy and what could turn out to be the competitions surprise package, Republic of Ireland, despite this Croatia do have a good chance of becoming this years dark horses, as if Italy play the way they did in South Africa’s World Cup Croatia might be able to finish second behind Spain in the group stage, but what of Croatia’s previous performances at the Euros? Do their previous performances point to them being able to shock group C and qualifying ahead of giants Italy?
The Croatian national football team is very much still in its infancy, as Croatia was part of Yugoslavia until 1991, when Croatia gained independence and was recognised as a separate sovereign state. The first competition the Croatian national team was able to compete in was the 1996 European Championship, in which they reached the quarter final. This year Croatia was one of many teams to feature in the Euros for the first time, as many Eastern European countries finally became part of the EU and participated in European sporting tournaments. In the qualifying stages Croatia set Group 4 alight, topping their group, coming ahead of recent World Cup runners-up Italy. They only lost one game in the qualifying campaign and even cruised to an impressive 7-1 victory against Estonia. Again in the group stage of the Euros ’96 Croatia found themselves in a group with an in form side who had recently tasted success, as they were drawn with the holders of the competition, Denmark, along with Portugal and Turkey. Croatia qualified from the group stage second, behind Portugal, winning two games and losing one. In their first game Croatia lined up against Turkey at the City Ground, home to Nottingham Forest. The Croatian’s nicked the game 1-0 thanks to a dramatic late goal from striker Gorna Vlaović, although the game was a scrappy affair and Croatia’s star studded line up did not deliver what many had hoped before the tournament. In their next game Croatia picked up their biggest win of the tournament, as they certainly delivered the form many had hoped before the tournament, as they pulled off an inspired victory against holders Denmark 3-0, with their all-time leading scorer Davor Šuker bagging a brace, as he put on what many consider the performance of the tournament. The first goal for the then Sevilla striker came from the spot as Danish keeper Schmeichel bought down Mario Stanić. It was in the second half that Šuker came alive, not only setting up Croatia’s second goal with a superb low cross to Zvonimir Boban. Before this Šuker gave the Danish back four a torrid time, smartly dummying a ball that Igor Stimać smacked against the bar, and almost catching Schmeicel out from the half way line. Šuker rounded off a glittering performance by Croatia with his iconic chip over Schmeichel, who was struggling to make up ground from an ill-advised fortay forward. Unfortunately Croatia were unable to finish the group stage unbeaten as they were defeated comfortably by Portugal 3-0, consigning themselves to a second place finish, and giving them a date with Germany in the quarter finals. The quarter final between Croatia and Germany ended Croatia’s first trip to the Euros, as the Germans, who ended up winners of the competition, beat Croatia 2-1. This was one of the more interesting games of the quarters, as many were characterised by negative, defensive football, which saw only four goals scored, which all came from two matches, and two of the four ending in goalless draws and being decided on penalties. In the quarter final match against Germany Klinsmann ensured his side went in with the lead at half time with a goal from the spot in the 20th minute. In the second half that man Šuker put Croatia back in it, equalising in the 51st minute, however just five minutes later Igor Štimac was shown the red card, and Croatia’s hopes of carrying on their momentum against Germany were ended just three minutes after they went down to ten men as Sammer finished cooly, this set up the infamous semi-final of England vs. Germany, which ended with Gareth Southgate’s penalty being saved.
Croatia were unable to follow up their success in the 1996 Euros as they failed to qualify for the European Championships in 2000, hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands. Croatia stepped up a seed thanks to their performance in 1996 and were in pot two for the draw of the qualifying groups. This led to Croatia being drawn alongside first seed Yugoslavia, third seed Republic of Ireland and fourth and fifth seeds Macedonia and Malta. Croatia finished third, behind Yugoslavia and Ireland. This was desperately unlucky for the Croatians, who only lost one game, a 2-0 loss to Ireland in Dublin, and racked up 15 points. Ultimately it was a draw to Macedonia, thanks to an 80th minute equaliser from Macedonia’s Hristov, that Croatia really should have won that doomed Croatia not to take part in Belgium and Netherlands. Croatia finished just one point behind Ireland, and two points behind Yugoslavia, in what was one of the closest qualifying group in the 2000 European Championships.
Once again Croatia were second seed for the qualifying campaign of Europpean Championships, and this time they delivered for their seed rannking, finishing second in Group 8 in what was once again one of the closest groups of the qualifying groups in the qualifying campaigns, as it was only thanks to goal difference that Croatia progressed to the finals of the competition. In the qualifying campaign Croatia secured an impressive 4-0 victory over first seed Belgium, however did enact their revenge, beating Croatia 2-1 in the reverse fixture. Ultimately Croatia notched up five wins, one draw and lost only twice in the qualifying campaign, scoring 12 and conceding only 4 in the process. In the finals readers of this blog might remember Croatia’s performance, ass they drawn in group B alongside England, France and Switzerland. It was France and England who qualified in first and second respecitvely, but this does not mean Croatia did not put in some strong performances, drawing to Switzerland and France, and only losing to England, thanks to an inspired performance by Wayne Rooney. Croatia kicked off their finals tournament with a 0-0 draw against Switzerland, it was a tense affair in which Croatia probably had the upper-hand, Switzerland fought hard to share the spoils of the game however, and the Swiss saw out most of the second half with ten men and probably deserved their point. Next up for Croatia were holders France, and the game was a fiery affair, which saw four goals, split 2-2. It was an own goal by defender Igor Tudor that put France up, but Croatia came from behind three minutes into the second half thanks to a Milan Rapaić penalty and just four minutes after this a sublime volley from striker Dado Pršo rewarded Croatia’s superb comeback and put them in the lead. Croatia were unable to hold on to their lead however and David Trezeguet earned his side a point in the 64th minute. Croatia went into their last game against England knowing that a victory would take them through, as they were only one point behind their opponents. The game was a cracker, with six goals being scored in the 90 minutes. Croatia took an early lead through a five minute finish by midfielder Niko Kovač, but this was reversed and England went in with the advantage at the interval thanks to two goals in the last five minutes of the first half, one a 40th minute Paul Scholes goal and secondly an exceptional team goal thT was lashed home by Rooney in stoppage time. Rooney got his brace in the 68th minute, but Igor Tudor gave the Croatian’s hope in the 72nd minute with a headed goal from a free kick. Lampard quashed this hope however, with a typical Lampard strike in the 79th minute.
The European Champonships in 2008, hosted by Austria and Switzerland, saw what was undoubtedly Croatia’s best performance at a European Championship, as they topped not only their qualifying group but their group in the finals. Once again readers might remember Croatia from the 2008 Euros, as they faced England in their qualifying group, along with Russia, Israel, Macedonia, Estonia and Andorra. Croatia only dropped points in three games, as they won 9, drew twice and lost once. Croatia eased to victory in the group, as they were five points clear of second placed Russia. This was the result of an impressive double over the disappointing England side, and massive 7-0 and 6-0 victories against Andorra. This impressive qualifying campaign resulted in Croatia being drawn alongside Germany, Austria and Poland in the finals. Once again Croatia topped their group in impressive fashion as they qualified for the Quarters with ease, topping their group with three wins out of three, all while only conceding one goal. They started their campaign with a 1-0 victory over co-host Austria, thanks to a Luka Modrić penalty after just four minutes. Next Croatia lined up against a strong German side, who they disposed 2-1, with captain Darijo Srna and striker Ivica Olić both getting on the scoresheet before Lukas Podolski pegged one back for Germany. Croatia ensured their continuation from the group stage with a 1-0 win against Poland, thanks to ex-Bolton striker Ivan Klasnić. In the Quarter-final Croatia faced Turkey, in a nervy encounter that came to life in the final minutes of extra-time, as Klasnić put Croatia ahead in the final minute of extra time, seemingly booking Croatia’s first visit to Euros Semi-final against Germany, this was not to be however, as Turkey managed to pull it back at the death with an unfortunate goal given to Semih Şentürk, which took a wicked deflection in the penalty area. In the following shootout Croatia cracked under the pressure, as Modrić, Rakitić and Petrić all missed their decisive kick, and captain Srna was the only Croatian to convert their penalty, resulting in a 3-1 victory for Turkey in the shootout.
So Croatia may have never advanced past the quarter-finals of a European Championship, but they have put in some famous performances and caused some serious upsets in their time in the competition, and they might just use the confidence from these performances to cause similar upsets this year.
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