World Cup glory beckons for Croatian stars such as Luka Modric after several traumatic experiences at major tournaments, says their former coach Slaven Bilic.
The charismatic 49-year-old – who is in Russia as a TV pundit for English broadcaster ITV – told The Daily Mail Modric and fellow superstar Ivan Rakitic will pose problems for England in their World Cup semi-final on Wednesday they have not had to encounter thus far.
“Luka and Rakitic are the best midfield pair in the World Cup,” said Bilic.
“But don’t underestimate the rest of the team either. For me, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida have been fantastic centre backs, among the best in the World Cup.
“England will be a different opponent to Denmark, Russia or even Argentina.
“They really have a lot of pace, like Belgium, and get plenty of numbers forward.
“Croatia will have to plan for that. But Croatia can also cause England problems they haven’t had before.”
Bilic, who is a mentor to several of the present squad including Modric having nurtured their talent as Croatia’s Under-21 handler before becoming head coach of the national side, added he is confident this team can go one better than he and his teammates in 1998 and reach the final.
The hosts and eventual champions France came from 1-0 down to beat Croatia 2-1 but Bilic did not emerge with great credit from the game going down clutching his face as if he had been head-butted by French icon Laurent Blanc – the latter got red-carded and missed France’s greatest football moment.
‘This is their time’
Bilic, who is presently out of work having been sacked by Premier League side West Ham last season, experienced some of the highs and the lows with the Croatian players such as being seconds away from the Euro 2008 semi-finals only for Turkey to level and progress on penalties.
The Croats were to suffer a similar late reverse when eventual champions Portugal defeated them in extra-time of the Euro 2016 Last 16 clash.
“Those memories are painful and the players realise this is their time,” said Bilic.
“It’s a perfect storm. They are in the better half of the draw and we have a proper team, full of quality, full of experience.
“They play for big clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan. And they have this incredible spirit, like England have.”
Bilic, who is responsible for persuading Rakitic to play for Croatia rather than his adopted country of Switzerland, was in charge in a previous victory for Croatia over England at a sodden Wembley in a Euro 2008 qualifier bringing to an end Steve McLaren’s reign – the latter exiting with the epithet ‘the wally with the brolly’.
Bilic believes a constant theme in Croatian national sides is they up their game against the historically bigger sides, thus their low-key performances against Denmark and Russia, beating both on penalties, should be disregarded.
“You know, we have always shown we can do well against the big nations,” said Bilic.
“When I played we beat Germany 3-0 at the 1998 World Cup [in the quarter-finals]. At the last Euros, we defeated Spain. We won 3-0 against Argentina a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s the tighter, uglier games that have been our downfall.
“So we feared the worst in a penalty shootout against Denmark. But this team showed something different. They found a way to win, and then against the hosts as well.”