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For Croatia, victory against the Republic of Ireland in their opening UEFA EURO 2012 fixture in Poznan on 10 June would be the ideal springboard for a group campaign that features subsequent daunting assignments against Italy and Spain. But even without a winning start, Darijo Srna believes Croatia have the potential to make a major impact in Group C as he reflects on their ability to do things "the hard way".
"Spain, Italy and Ireland is a very strong group but Croatia have always been capable of winning big games against the favourites," Srna told UEFA.com. "We can choose between an easy way of qualifying, or a harder way of doing it – the easy way being to win the first game against Ireland, take three points, and then try to get those additional points in the other two matches.
"There is a hard way as well, which means not taking those three points against Ireland, and then going into two 'winner takes all' matches," added the Croatia captain. "We are used to the hard way, since we qualified for this EURO via the play-offs. We have proved it again, that when it counts we are always there and that we can play the best football when it's needed the most."
Croatia showed at UEFA EURO 2008 that they are not ruffled by more fancied opponents, beating Germany 2-1 through goals from Srna and Ivica Olić. The latter was also a scorer in June 2002 when the Balkan nation upset Italy with a 2-1 success in a group game at the FIFA World Cup in Japan.
Reflecting on their capacity to surprise, Olić said: "I think we get very motivated when we play against teams like Germany or Italy, probably because they are so close to our country, maybe because we all watch their national championships, because they are so strong, and also because lots of our players play in Germany or Italy. All that together probably motivates us so much." The FC Bayern München forward also believes that "the way they play simply fits with our football".
The downside of thriving as underdogs, with their backs to the wall, is that Croatia – surprise World Cup semi-finalists in 1998 – have struggled in the past in the opposing role of favourites. Back in 2002 their victory against Italy was sandwiched by defeats by Mexico and Ecuador. At UEFA EURO 2008, meanwhile, they followed up winning their section by falling to Turkey in the quarter-finals.
That latter loss came in dramatic fashion: after scoring what seemed a certain 119th-minute winner through Ivan Klasnić, they immediately conceded an equaliser before losing on penalties. Luka Modrić, who missed Croatia's first spot kick that night, said it remains a painful memory. "It was one of the hardest defeats for me in my career so far, and for most of my team-mates," said the Tottenham Hotspur FC midfielder.
Croatia gained revenge when beating Turkey 3-0 on aggregate in their qualifying play-off for Poland and Ukraine but for Modrić "that defeat will always stay in our minds". Still, the return to the EURO stage offers a fresh opportunity for a team that missed out on the World Cup in South Africa. Modrić believes Slaven Bilić's rejuvenated squad have what it takes to shine.
"A few players who were very important in the previous generation are not there anymore – the Kovač brothers, or Dario Šimič for instance," he said. "A few other young players have arrived, who are very motivated to show their quality. They have made us stronger. I think we are a better team than we were for EURO 2008. We have to show that at the tournament."
As if any extra motivation were required, Srna, who plays his club football in Ukraine with FC Shakhtar Donetsk, has his own personal incentive for the EURO: to win Group C and book a quarter-final at his adopted home, the Donbass Arena. "To me personally it would mean a lot. I mean, I have been playing football in Donetsk for nine years now, this is my second home." That will not be easy, of course, but as Srna has already told us, when did Croatia ever take the easy option?
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