Croatia coach Mato Stanković has described his team's UEFA Futsal EURO 2012 semi-final against Russia as being "like Real Madrid playing Dinamo Zagreb" as he readies the hosts for the biggest match in their history following the switch from Split.
Having welcomed the Spanish Liga leaders to Zagreb in September – Madrid won 1-0 at the Stadion Maksimir on UEFA Champions League matchday one – the people of the Croatian capital are hoping for a different outcome when their futsal players take on one of the world's premier nations.
Though he is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his charges at the Arena Zagreb in front of what could be the first 10,000-plus crowd in the tournament's history, Stanković is heartened by Croatia's last meeting with the 1999 European champions and Group C winners.
It was only last month in a Novigrad friendly that Croatia drew 1-1 with Sergei Skorovich's men, a performance Stanković ranks as "the best match since I took charge" in August 2010. "Russia are always in the world's top bracket," he said. "Their style of play is excellent. Their match against Serbia [2-1 in the quarter-finals on Tuesday] didn't show their real strength."
The hosts' feat in reaching the knockout stage for the first time is front-page news in Croatia, something Stanković and his players are taking time to get their heads around. "
We are not used to such media focus, but I'm glad it has come to this and that we have achieved it as a result of our great success. We have had some fantastic results – we are among the four best teams in Europe."
Stanković will make a late fitness check on Dario Marinović – Croatia's three-goal leading scorer at the finals – who felt pain in his back early in Monday's penalty shoot-out triumph over Ukraine in the last eight. "It's not good," said Marinović. "If the match was today [Wednesday] I wouldn't play, but with the help of the physio I will do my best to be ready."
Skorovich, meanwhile, singled out goalkeeper Ivo Jukić, who saved three spot kicks against Ukraine in Split, and Jakov Grcić for special praise, but believes Group A winners Croatia's "biggest strength is their team spirit". The Russia coach added: "I know Mato Stanković very well and he has been able to build a great team around himself. The players are ready to fight for their country.
I am looking forward to the semi-final because I have no doubt the arena will be packed with 15,000 fans. We are not afraid because we have enough experience of playing in such conditions and I hope the spectators will really enjoy the futsal."