Spain are the hardest
team to play against but the easiest to prepare for because you
know exactly to expect, says Slaven Bilic, whose Croatia side
face the world and European champions in the group stage
of Euro 2012.
With Italy and Ireland also in Group C, Croatia face a
daunting challenge if they are to match their achievement of
four years ago when they topped their qualifying group with
three wins including one over eventual runners-up Germany.
It is a challenge Bilic is relishing, however, as one of the
brightest young managers on the international scene pits his
wits against the tournament favourites.
"It's a tough group of course but that doesn't mean we don't
have a chance," Bilic told Reuters in an interview at a Euro
2012 workshop in Warsaw.
"In football you see surprises week in, week out. Spain are
the best side and they were in the last World Cup but
Switzerland beat them and they had some troubles with Chile,
Paraguay and Holland - they weren't cruising.
"They didn't have it easy in 2008 either, especially against
Italy [whom they beat on penalties in the quarter-finals after a
"They are a great team, great champions and worthy
favourites but they are not going to walk through the
championship with a cigar."
Bilic, who still plays guitar in a rock band, generally has
the look of a man who has spent the night partying hard on the
tour bus, but behind the unkempt demeanour he is one of the most
charming men in the game.
A law graduate and fluent in four languages, he is also one
of the most intelligent and thoughtful.
Understandably, he declined to discuss his preferred tactics
against Spain but said they were the one team against whom your
own preparations counted for little.
"When you play against Spain it's more up to them than up to
you," he said. "It's like Barcelona - we've all seen how in the
last four years teams have tried everything. Some have tried to
attack them and they lose, some have played a normal game and
they lose. Most teams try to defend against them but they find a
"It may sound like a contradiction but though Spain is the
toughest game it is the easiest to prepare for. You are almost
reduced to one way of playing - trying to break them up without
committing too many players.
"We all have different ideas on how to counter them but
really it's up to them. You won't have more possession than them
so your options are reduced but you can harm them.
"They are playing the best football and it's nice to watch
but they have had games where they have struggled so you can get
Croatia's three opponents will certainly be expecting a
stiff examination from a team who, in their short existence,
have become a consistent tournament presence with enough
technical ability and mental resilience to beat the best.
Bilic was a member of the team that finished third in the
1998 World Cup six years after joining FIFA as an independent
nation and took over as coach in 2006 when he was still only 37.
He began well by topping a tough Euro 2008 qualifying group
ahead of Russia and England and continued the good work once the
An opening victory over co-hosts Austria was followed by a
memorable 2-1 defeat of Germany and another 1-0 win over Poland.
The run ended in dramatic fashion when Croatia took the lead
in the 119th minute of their quarter-final against Turkey only
to concede an equaliser with the last kick of extra-time and
then, mentally crushed, lose on penalties.
They failed to make the 2010 World Cup but gained a measure
of revenge on the Turks by beating them convincingly in the
play-offs for Euro 2012.
The bulk of the 2008 side are still in place and Bilic says
the experience gained four years ago will be invaluable this
"The staff are the same as 2008, more than half the team is
the same - the spine certainly is - and we had a really positive
experience to build from," he said.
"It's much easier for me and my staff to plan the thing. We
just had to almost replicate what we did four years ago in
Austria. It's helped us a lot, definitely."
Bilic will hope that, as usual, tournament play brings out
the best in his side who have looked shaky in recent matches and
were outplayed by Sweden in a 3-1 home friendly defeat two weeks
"The first game is important for the whole atmosphere and of
course against Ireland it is a game we have to be trying to
win," he said.
"We cannot afford to ease our way into the tournament
because we could be already almost out before we realise it, so
we have to start fully switched on."
Barcelona's golden boy grabs the headlines again
It's Larsson Jr stealing the show these days
England striker puts pen to paper on permanent deal
The new season is but six weeks away (in the Football League)
Who would you rather have playing for your club?
12 months out, the stars look to the World Cup
Your questions answered by an A to Z of legends
75% of all TV is Bale
On the road to ruin
Adidas Nitrocharge for you
FourFourTwo is brought to you by Haymarket Consumer Media & FourFourTwo is part of Haymarket Sport
| International Licensing | © Haymarket Media Group 2010