In his playing days, Croatia coach Slaven Bilic may have been a defender, but since stepping onto the sidelines he has adopted an offensive posture. The switch in his perspective has been influenced by his "special advisor," childhood friend and former Croatia teammate Robert Prosinecki, who to all intents and purposes is his assistant coach.
Bilic always fields two strikers, with the exception of matches against inferior opposition such as Andorra, against which he fielded three. Even if Croatia is playing away, and even if it is up against tough opposition such as England, Bilic will stick with a 4-4-2 formation and can be expected to do so when he takes on Israel at Ramat Gan when the two teams meet in a Euro 2008 Group E qualifier on Wednesday.
Croatia has a solid defense, a creative midfield and a pair of dangerous strikers. It has yet to concede a goal in the qualifying tournament and taught England a lesson in soccer. Slaven Bilic's Croatia team knows how to pile on the pressure - albeit a lot of the time from midfield only.
The bad news: The Croats know how to apply pressure all over the field. They are well organized and possess superb physical fitness.
The good news: Nobody pressures for 90 minutes and even Croatia relaxes the pace after 30-40 minutes. Apart from that Bilic is taking the game in Israel very seriously and he is afraid of Yossi Benayoun's solo runs and of the scoring ability of the man he calls "the mysterious Argentinean": Roberto Colautti.
Food for thought: Bilic doesn't have a joker to pull out of the hat. Israel, on the other hand, does.
You can call them the tall guy and the short one, the dark-skinned and the fair, the one who plays from in front and the one who plays from behind, the one who scores with his head and the one who scores with his feet. Naturalized Brazilian striker Eduardo Alves da Silva is the second player - short with superb ball control, sublime technique and clinical finishing. Da Silva's place in the team is assured. He plays behind the center forward, either Mladan Petric or Ivan Klasnic, who are both tall, physical, versatile players and excellent headers.
The bad news: Da Silva is in outstanding form: nine goals in eight league games for Dinamo Zagreb and strikes against Italy and England. Petric is also in sizzling form with nine goals in seven games for FC Basel, and four goals in Croatia's 7-0 defeat of Andorra.
The good news: Tal Ben Haim has shut out far better players in the English Premier League with his club Bolton Wanderers.
Food for thought: In light of Israel's traditional problems with high balls, coach Dror Kashtan would do well to consider playing a tall defender such as Tomer Ben Yossef.
Croatia's center backs don't play for big Italian teams for nothing: Dario Simic and Robert Kovac look like typical Italian defenders; they are fast, tough, determined and give their team's back line a lot of confidence. Simic has been with AC Milan for years and Kovac, after years with Bayern Munich, is now at Juventus, which could afford to let Fabio Cannavaro leave, as his Croatian replacement is every bit as good.
Josip Simunic on the left and Vedran Corluka on the right aren't of the same standard. Hertha Berlin's Simunic reads the game outstandingly, but is slow. Dinamo Zagreb's Corluka is built like a basketball player, but specializes in free kicks. He is fast and likes to move up the field, sometimes too much for his team's good.
The bad news: The center of the Croatia defense is tough and almost impenetrable: Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney couldn't get past it.
The good news: Salvation could come from the wings, especially on the right.
Food for thought: Toto Tamuz could be a successful gamble
Forget about defensive and offensive midfield as we know it: All four Croatia midfielders know how to defend, how to pass the ball and how to manage the game. Bilic plays a variation on the diamond formation, with Luka Modric up front, Niko Kovac from behind, Milan Rapaic on the left and Niko Kranjcar/Darijo Srna/Jerko Leko on the right, although their roles are not predetermined.
With Rapaic, a key player in Bilic's formation, out through injury, there will be changes on the wings. Modric and Kovac will continue to play in center field from where they will control Croatia's game, managing the transition from defense to offense (Kovac) and create scoring opportunities (Modric). Bilic's big deliberation will be what to don in Rapaic's absence. The versatile Kranjcar could replace Rapaic on the left, leaving Srna on the right in a relatively defensive position, covering for Corluka and perhaps switching roles with him occasionally. On the other hand, Leko can play any role in midfield, leaving Srna on the right and freeing Kovac to come forward more often and Modric in his natural position on the left.
The bad news: The Croats know how to hold the ball better than any Israeli player - with the exception of Yossi Benayoun - and their long balls from midfield to the forwards can be deadly.
The good news: Rapaic's injury has upset Bilic's balance in midfield.
Food for thought: It's going to be crowded in midfield.
Assuming that Stipe Pelitkosa is fit, Israel will be up against a 'keeper who was dubbed "the octopus" a long time before Nir Davidovich. Pelitkosa has incredible instincts and can stop a ball from zero range.
The bad news: An outstanding 'keeper on almost every parameter.
The good news: Despite his height, 1.93 m., Pelitkosa is weak at defending high balls. Even Davidovich and Dudu Awat can't compete with the goals he conceded from high balls at the European Under 21 Championship in 2000.
Food for thought: Don't try and get the ball through the wall; go over it.
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