Slovenia put themselves in contention for a place at next summer's UEFA EURO 2004™ finals by producing a valiant display to hold neighbours Croatia to a 1-1 draw at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb.
Croatia have defeated Slovenia in qualifiers for both EURO 96™ and the 1998 FIFA World Cup, winning three of four previous meetings, but were unable to capitalise on an early Dado Pršo goal which gave them a perfect start in front of their vociferous home fans. Ermin Šiljak's equaliser ensured the Slovenians would have the upper hand for Wednesday's play-off return in Ljubljana.
The visitors were missing goalkeeper Marko Simeunovic because of a shoulder problem and achilles damage ruled out striker Sebastjan Cimirotic while the home side started with influential midfield player Milan Rapaic on the bench. Otto Baric fielded three forwards with the in-form Pršo playing behind Ivica Mornar and Ivica Olic.
The deployment of the attacking trio paid almost immediate dividends, giving the impression that Croatia would be in for an easy night. AS Monaco FC striker Pršo, fresh from his four-goal haul against RC Deportivo La Coruña in the UEFA Champions League, opened the scoring. He struck in the fifth minute after Niko Kovac’s outswinging free-kick was headed back across goal by Mornar.
The goal jolted Slovenia into the realisation that they would need to be at their best to get a result. Midfield player Amir Karic went close to levelling when he was dispossessed after darting into the home penalty area following a swift counterattack but striker Šiljak went one better in the 22nd minute, climbing high to head in following a free-kick from Milenko Acimovic.
Croatia, though, were the more dangerous in the remainder of the first half and were unlucky not to go into the interval in the lead. The same pair that combined for the opener almost struck again in the 33rd minute, Pršo getting his head to a cross from Mornar and forcing goalkeeper Mladen Dabanovic to acrobatically palm the ball away.
Baric was clearly unhappy with the performance of his team as he made his full complement of changes at the start of the second period, bringing on Giovani Rosso for Jerko Leko and Darijo Srna for Boris Zivkovic in an effort to bolster the midfield. A semi-fit Rapaic replaced Olic up front.
Slovenia, however, were determined to hold firm despite the predictable onslaught and did so manfully, centre-backs Fabijan Cipot and Aleksander Knavs making a series of clearances and tackles that ensured their team remained consistently composed at the back.
In fact, if either side was going to edge the match as the pressure boiled in the final stages it would have been the visitors. With just seven minutes to go, Šiljak went within centimetres of collecting a second, driving over the bar. Croatia might have dominated possession after the interval – the corner count was 13-0 in their favour - but for the most part they were restricted to shooting from distance.