By Danijel Lijovic
Croatia crept into the UEFA EURO 2004™ play-off draw by the narrowest of margins with a 1-0 win against Bulgaria.
Level on points
Otto Baric's side had Ivica Olic to thank for the goal which edged Belgium out of the race to finish as runners-up in Group 8. The striker's 48th-minute effort at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb ensured that they finished level on points with Belgium but pipped them to second place by virtue of a superior head-to-head record in qualifying.
Aimé Antheunuis's side finished their campaign with a 2-0 win at home against Estonia - a result that would have been good enough to see Belgium through had Croatia faltered in Zagreb. "I am pleased with the way my side played but very disappointed we will not get the chance to go to Portugal," said Antheunis. "Had we gone I think we may have surprised a few people."
However, Antheunis can have no complaints about Croatia's final game. Group 8 winners Bulgaria gave it their best shot in Zagreb with Dimitar Berbatov certainly ending the game frustrated: "I had plenty of chances but I didn't have the luck," said the Bayer 04 Leverkusen striker.
"The match showed that no deals had been done between the two sides," added Baric. "Bulgaria kept us on our toes until the end.
I congratulate all my players - we won with a great team spirit and the fans were also fantastic. We deserved to score more, but it could easily have been 1-1 or even 1-0 to Bulgaria, so I am very pleased with the result."
Croatia dominated proceedings, despite their opponents' best efforts, and Baric was keen to spread the plaudits around the whole of his squad. "It wasn't just Olic who put us through," said the coach. "We hit the post three times - it was a team effort."
Dado Pršo was certainly pleased with his side's efforts, saying: "We have won in a big match and we could have won by a bigger margin." His team-mate Jerko Leko added with a smile: "[Bulgaria] played like their wives were very far and away, and not like they were with them in Zagreb."
Bulgaria coach Plamen Markov was inclined to disagree. "I am very happy with the way my players performed," he said. "This was a very good match - both sides had plenty of opportunities to score. Yes, Croatia could have won by a bigger margin, but we had also great a chance to score in the end through Berbatov."
Defeat was of little consequence for Bulgaria who are already gearing themselves up for a place in next summer's finals. Markov expected the Croatians to join them in Portugal in June. "I think Croatia will make it through the play-offs," he said. With a favourable play-off draw against neighbours Slovenia, he may just be right.
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