Slaven Bilić said he would be "a bigger England fan than anyone in England" on Wednesday as his Croatia side hope a Group E result goes their way in Moscow.
A 1-0 win at home against Israel on Saturday, secured by a 52nd-minute goal from Arsenal FC's Eduardo da Silva, has left Croatia three points clear of England at the top of Group E and eight points ahead of third-placed Russia. Should Russia fail to beat England in Moscow on Wednesday, Bilić's side would be certain of a place at UEFA EURO 2008™ next summer with two games to spare. "Believe me, on Wednesday I will be a bigger England fan than anyone in England," said Bilić.
The champagne is on ice in Zagreb but it took a supreme effort to overcome Israel. "We won a very hard match," said the 39-year-old coach, who played at EURO' 96™ and the 1998 FIFA World Cup for Croatia. "We were patient in the first half and Israel played differently from usual. They were more agressive. At half-time I yelled at the players because they seemed surprised. I told them: 'Did you really think you would be 3-0 up at half-time?' But after all that I have to congratulate them, it's their victory."
Patience pays off
Israel's stubborn resistance certainly caught Croatia by surprise with many players agreeing that this was one of their most difficult qualifiers. "The fans expected us to be 3-0 up after 20 minutes but we didn't manage that, although we knew we would score," said Eduardo, who scored four of Croatia's five goals against Israel in Group E. "Slaven told us at half-time just to be patient. I think this was our most difficult group stage match to date."
Eduardo's goal took him to second place in the EURO 2008™ top scorers rankings with ten goals, two behind Northern Ireland's David Healy. "Eduardo is a world-class player," said Bilić. "He definitely deserves a club like Arsenal, just as Arsenal deserve him." Meanwhile, Israel coach Dror Kashtan was magnanimous in defeat, saying: "I congratulate Croatia for winning a place at EURO 2008™. We made only one mistake in this match and that was enough for Eduardo."
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