By Elvir Islamovic & Berend Scholten
The race for qualification for UEFA EURO 2004™ from Group 8 has been a close-run affair but one team could finally fall by the wayside tonight. Belgium have to beat Croatia in Brussels to keep their hopes alive.
A Belgian defeat, however, will set up a group decider between Croatia and Bulgaria next month in Zagreb. Realistically, Belgium have to win their two remaining games, tonight and against Estonia in Liege next month, while hoping that Croatia drop points. Mathematically, they can catch Bulgaria but this would require an unlikely slip-up by the Bulgarians against Andorra.
However, Belgium do have another way of sneaking into second place, albeit an unlikely one: Croatia beat Belgium 4-0 in a previous group game and should Belgium better that result against Croatia they would have a superior head-to-head record and could then, by beating Estonia, guarantee a play-off position. "Five-nil is a dream," Aimé Anthuenis, the Belgium coach, said. "I would be happy with [any] victory over Croatia. But, if we were leading 3-0 at half-time, obviously, I will not tell my boys to stop scoring."
Anthuenis continued: "
I believe we will reach the play-offs if we win our two matches. It will be a good effort, after all, to beat both Croatia and Estonia. To reach the tournament is the hardest part for us but once we are in the tournament we can be surprisingly impressive." Anthuenis's view is supported by Belgium's performance in last year's FIFA World Cup. After scraping past the Czech Republic in a play-off, they went on to reach the second round before narrowly losing to the eventual champions, Brazil.
To help their cause tonight Belgium will be hoping that the R. Excelsior Mouscron attacker Mbo Mpenza has recovered from a thigh injury. If so, the team will be unchanged from the one that put in an excellent first-half performance against the Netherlands last month. They led 1-0 at the break before drawing 1-1. Impressive though the display was, such a scoreline tonight will not be enough.
Croatia coach Otto Baric, meanwhile, was quick to warn his players against complacency. "We shouldn't think about the 4-0 win in Zagreb," he said. "
They will try to take revenge and will push for 90 minutes."
Croatia beat Andorra 3-0 at the weekend when Baric gave the fit-again Igor Tudor a run-out and Dado Prso has also recovered from a knock. And with Boris Zivkovic and Darijo Srna back after suspensions, his side is almost at full-strength. Only Jerko Leko is suspended.
Concern over Rapaic
One concern for Baric has been the fitness of Milan Rapaic who is without a club after leaving HNK Hajduk Split at the end of last season. However, any fears were allayed by the midfield player's form in Andorra where he was a constant threat. "It will be a very difficult game," Rapaic said. "To at least draw we must play just like we did in Zagreb. I'm feeling good after 90 minutes in Andorra. I haven't been tired."
Bulgaria on brink
The group's other game sees Bulgaria travel to Andorra – who sit bottom without a point - knowing victory would guarantee qualification if Belgium beat Croatia. Celtic FC's Stilian Petrov is fit and Plamen Markov has a full squad to choose from apart from the suspended Iliyan Stoyanov.
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