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Croatia will go into the new year on top of UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying Group F if they can beat Malta in Zagreb on Wednesday, but while coach Slaven Bilić will be horrified if his team drop points, he knows the standard of international football is continuing to improve. The 42-year-old former Croatia defender discussed his side's prospects and his plans for the future with UEFA.com.
UEFA.com: Do you know that everyone in Croatia expects an easy win against Malta?
Slaven Bilić: Anything but victory would be a failure. Croatia fans don't just want wins but stylish football too, no matter who we are up against. We have raised the bar very high and we have to maintain that standard we set ourselves. If we win against Malta we will be top of our group with a nice lead. That doesn't mean we are significantly closer to EURO 2012, but it puts us on the right track.
UEFA.com: You face some real dilemmas with your strikers – Eduardo and Srdjan Lakić are playing well, Nikica Jelavić and Ivica Olić are injured, while Mario Mandžukić is out of form. How are you handling that?
Bilić: After all we've went through with injuries and bad luck in the last World Cup qualifying campaign, we practically qualified as doctors. We know how to deal with such situations. We are not afraid of taking chances and know that the only way to keep up the standard of the Croatian national team is to refresh our team, make the right selections and give young players opportunities.
Lakić is a great player; we know him from when I coached the Under-21s. We have more choice in attacking positions than anywhere else – Mate Bilić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Klasnić – but we are trying out some new names and those players will get a chance. We know how to turn young prospects into key players.
UEFA.com: In the spring, Croatia have back-to-back qualifiers against Georgia. What do you expect from those games?
Bilić: We knew from the start that this group would be tough. It seemed easy to some because Croatia were the top-seeded side and it looks to start with that there are no big opponents, but we got the strongest teams in pretty much every other pot – Greece and Israel and then Latvia and Georgia. Any team who comes away from Tbilisi unscathed will be doing well.
UEFA.com: Have results in the group so far surprised you?
Bilić: They have only confirmed what we already knew; no one can afford to slip up and all the matches will be tough. I said a long time ago that the differences between national teams have been drastically reduced. Aside from a few top teams, no one can bank on getting three points in any game. However, I want Croatia to be one of those teams.
UEFA.com: Do you still want to move into club coaching?
Bilić: I will definitely continue my career as a club coach, but the experience I will take from being national-team coach is invaluable. I get better every day and have my prime as a coach ahead of me. My voyage with Croatia still isn't over – the national team is my mission, and I want to finish a wonderful story with this generation at EURO 2012.
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