By Danijel Lijović & John Baete
There are those who believe the Croatian bubble has burst. After a first round 2002 FIFA World Cup exit, and no wins in two in UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying games, the third-placed team from France 98 desperately need to beat Belgium in Zagreb on Saturday to kick-start their qualifying campaign.
Opponents Belgium are second behind Group 8 leaders Bulgaria with six points from three games, but Croatia coach Otto Baric is unconcerned by the pressure. "
I believe 100 per cent in our victory; Belgium cannot surprise me with anything," he said.
History on Croatia's side
Croatia are buoyed by the knowledge that they secured their place at the World Cup with a 1-0 home win against the Belgians in the final match of their qualifying campaign, a game in which they were under equal, if not greater, pressure than they face now.
'We are in form'
Certainly Baric has no doubts. "I have studied Belgium carefully," he said. "My players are in good form, especially the attackers. Nobody can say I haven't chosen the best Croatia has at this point. These players are the future of our football."
A full 48 hours before kick-off Baric was bold enough to reveal his starting eleven, with recent impressive performances ensuring that HNK Hajduk Split forward Milan Rapaic is included. "The biggest dilemma was whether to put Milan Rapaic or Marko Babic in the eleven," Baric said. "If Rapaic is going to play like he does with Hajduk, then he is the man I need."
With striker Ivica Olic the only withdrawal after he suffered a broken cheekbone last weekend, Baric's formation is certainly bold, with Tomislav Maric and debutant Dado Prso also included to offer further attacking options, while Mario Stanic and Boško Balaban give the coach yet more firepower on the substitutes' bench.
'We must attack'
The Croatia coach's confidence is infectious, with goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa also using the October 2001 victory against Belgium as inspiration. "We have to be very aggressive from the start and push forward," he said. "I expect Belgium will play very carefully targeting a draw, but they tried that two years ago and lost, and we had plenty of opportunities to score then. I expect a very similar match this time."
Belgium coach Aimé Anthuenis is also in upbeat mood, but he is aware Croatia will present stiff opposition for his young side. "I am very happy about this group of players, who show a lot of promise. The game will be very difficult, but we have a great future, whatever the result," he said. "[Thomas] Buffel, Jelle Van Damme and Davy De Beule are integrating themselves into the squad quickly, so
I am very confident. This is a new team with young players, but we will play our way, with our qualities.
"I know that Otto Baric has been trying a lot of different players, and I do not know what to expect from him really," Anthuenis went on. "The atmosphere will be very difficult for us there with a fanatical crowd. This game is Croatia's last chance. They have to win and I expect an aggressive game."
Belgium captain Bart Goor shares his coach's positive view. "I am very optimistic," he said. "We lost there last time but this is different. I think they are technically and individually better than us, but that does not mean everything."
New defensive partnership
Anthuenis is likely to play Joos Valgaeren and Daniel van Buyten together in central defence for the first time following Yves Vanderhaeghe's season-ending knee surgery and the decision to push Timmy Simons into midfield.
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