No lie: Slaven Bilic saved me at World Cup ’98. When you’re a rookie American reporter covering a team without many English-speaking players, you find out which ones speak the language well and latch onto those guys for dear life. At World Cup ’98 that meant I became a quasi-stalker of France’s Franck LeBoeuf, Brazil’s Roberto Carlos (who at least spoke Spanish as his second language, like I do) and Croatia’s Bilic—who could provide pithy analysis (and the occasional heavy-metal band recommendation) as my go-to quote on the surprise World Cup semifinalists.
(Of course, Bilic also perpetrated one of the most shameful fakery incidents in soccer history in that tournament, but that’s a story for another day.)
Back in ’98 I never would have assumed that 10 years later the same Bilic would be coaching Croatia at age 39, much less leading the checker-boarders to the brink of another surprise semifinal berth in a major soccer tournament. (At least he’s still got the earring and the heavy-metal music going for him.) But Bilic’s team has been a marvel in Euro 2008: tactically solid, technically precise, and with enough confidence on the ball to drop a 15-pass build-up on Germany before scoring (for me, at least) the best possession-based goal of the tournament.
Suddenly, Slaven Bilic is a rising star in the coaching world. Next thing you know Dennis Rodman will be an NBA coach.
Anyway, now that we’ve seen one Euro 2008 group winner (Portugal) already eliminated by Germany in the first quarterfinal, will we see another one (Croatia) go down today? Let’s dive in:
Croatia-Turkey (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN). Croatia stunned just about everyone by going 3-0 in Group B and upsetting the Germans. Turkey, meanwhile, has engineered
Euro 2008’s only two come-from-behind wins, including its classic 3-2 victory over the Czech Republic to get here.
It would be easy to dismiss the Turks based on who they’re missing (essentially the spine of their defense): goalkeeper Volkan Demirel (suspended) defensive midfielder Mehmet Aurélio (suspended) and central defenders Servet (injured) and Emre Gungor (injured). But we’ve learned in this tournament that Turkey is highly adaptable, and its offensive firepower remains intact in Nihat, Tuncay and breakout starlet Arda Turan. I’d be very surprised if the Turks don’t score a goal today.
Yet while the Turks have shown a remarkable mental toughness in Euro 2008, Croatia’s mentality has been just as strong and far less stress-inducing, essentially boiling down to this: We won’t need to engineer comebacks because we’ll grab the game by the neck from the opening whistle. The Croatian dominance has been all the more impressive because star playmaker Luka Modric hasn’t had a great tournament yet.
I think Modric will show up in a big way in this game and take advantage of Mehmet Aurélio’s absence. Croatia has gotten sterling wing play from the left side (Ivan Rakitic and Danijel Pranjic) and the right (Darijo Srna), so look for them to continue banging balls into the box and putting the makeshift Turkish defense under heavy pressure. Substitute goalie Rüstü Reçber has big-tournament experience (remember him in World Cup ’02?) but there’s a reason he’s no longer the No. 1. Sorry, Turks: no comeback this time. Croatia 3, Turkey 1.
Who do you like in today’s game? How do you think Croatia or Turkey would stack up against the resurgent Germans in the semifinals? Please post your comments below and come back after the game for the next edition of the Euro 2008 blog ...