By Danijel Lijovic in Zagreb
Croatia and Slovenia need little introduction to one another. But while Croatia were happy to be paired with their western neighbours in the UEFA EURO 2004™ play-offs, most Slovenians admit they would have rather have avoided Otto Baric's side.
They have good reason too, as in qualifiers for both EURO 96™ and the 1998 FIFA World Cup, it was Croatia who got the better of their Balkan rivals, winning three of those four meetings.
Ahead of Saturday's play-off first leg at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb, both coaches have had problems with injuries. Slovenia coach Bojan Prašnikar confirmed he would be missing goalkeeper Marko Simeunovic for the first leg, because of a shoulder problem. He is also without striker Sebastjan Cimirotic due to an achilles injury.
'Little chance' for Rapaic
His Croatian counterpart, Baric, meanwhile, is without midfield player Milan Rapaic. "Rapaic will possibly be a substitute but his muscle injury could get worse if he play," said Baric. "So there is little chance of him making the squad." In his absence, FC Dynamo Kyiv's Jerko Leko will be asked to take charge in midfield.
Neither coach would disclose his lineup but Baric is expected to field three forwards with the in-form AS Monaco FC striker Dado Pršo playing behind Ivica Mornar and Ivica Olic. Pršo, who says he is happy operating in a withdrawn position, has been singled out by Prašnikar as the Croatian danger man following his recent scoring exploits for Monaco, namely his four-goal haul against RC Deportivo La Coruña in the UEFA Champions League.
The Croatia coach called on the supporters in Zagreb to get behind his players, as they did in the 1-0 victory over Bulgaria last month which secured them second place in Group 8 and a play-off place.
'We need good support'
"I hope we will repeat the atmosphere from the game against Bulgaria," he said. "We need good support from the fans.
Everybody says Croatia are favourites, but I know this will be a tough match. I have said before, we cannot say we are going to win this game for sure, we have to do it on the pitch. I do hope we are the better team and that we will prove this in these two matches."
Prašnikar, meanwhile, who is seeking a third successive major finals appearance for Slovenia, did his bit for neighbourly goodwill when he said: "We have great relations with the Croatian FA, and I respect the Croatian team very much. It is a shame one of us will be left behind."
The statistics support those who predict a Croatia success. They have lost just one of their 26 internationals in Zagreb and, moreover, have never lost against Slovenia in six attempts. That said these games have always been hard-fought. We can certainly expect that on Saturday and again in Ljubljana next Wednesday.
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