Croatia consigned a poor start to their UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign to the past by overwhelming Belgium 4-0 in Zagreb. A goal from Darijo Srna at the start of the first half and another from Dado Pršo early in the second proved decisive in a thoroughly one-sided encounter.
With Bulgaria out in front in Group 8 on nine points and Belgium second, where they remained despite the defeat, Croatia desperately needed victory to get back on track. The retirement of Davor Šuker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinečki has left a massive gap but Otto Baric’s side, who went into the game with just a point after a draw in their opener against Estonia, finally found their personality against Belgium.
The visitors’ initial poise was shattered when Srna opened the scoring in the ninth minute, arrowing in a shot from an acute angle when Belgium goalkeeper Franky Vandendriessche expected a cross. The goal served to soothe the tempestuous home fans, who were delighted to see Croatia rediscover their rhythm.
Striker Dado Pršo almost increased the lead soon after when he steered a header just wide, just before Wesley Sonck went close for the away side in the 18th minute, opening up the inside left channel but blasting straight at goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
From there on, however, any more goals were going to be Croatian and Tomislav Maric should have put himself on the scoresheet just before the break but headed wide after a corner from the left. Belgium, sorely missing the creative influence of retired playmaker Marc Wilmots, were short of ideas up front.
Pršo, who has hit six goals in ten games for AS Monaco FC this season, doubled the lead in the 53rd minute, nodding Milan Rapaic’s clipped pass from deep just past the despairing grasp of Vandendriessche. Any hope Belgium had of clawing themselves back into contention evaporated when their out-of-sorts defence was breached for the third time in the 71st minute. Tomislav Maric met Rapaic’s pinpoint cross with a powerful and accurate downward header to make it 3-0.
When substitute Jerko Leko glided into the box in the 76th minute, turning his marker inside out before shooting unerringly into the far corner, the home faithful had even more reason to be cheerful. The performance of their rejuvenated side had been dominant and composed from the off and had Maric finished off from close range in the dying minutes it could easily have been 5-0.
"I am very pleased," said Baric after the match. "We looked long and hard for our best team but we have found it. We defeated a powerful opponent. Belgium were better than us in the first 30 or so minutes but this squad proved their worth. I am lucky to have these players - all 14 of them played brilliantly. We have another match now, and we will not lose too much time celebrating. The game against Andorra on Wednesday is just as important as this one."
"Croatia scored in the worst moments of the match for us," concluded Belgium coach Aimé Antheunis. "They gained the psychological advantage. After the first goal we managed to keep playing well, but the second goal was too much. The Croatian team showed great composure and maturity."