Bilić wary of the Turkey factor
Luka Modrić has been a star performer for Croatia
"There is no 'but'," says Slaven Bilić, adamant that his Croatia team will confound doubters and maintain their excellent forward momentum in Friday's UEFA EURO 2008 quarter-final showdown with Turkey.
Consecutive wins over Austria, Germany and Poland not only gave the Croatians first place in Group B, they also sparked theories that Bilić and his charges might become victims of their own success. Traditionally more comfortable when cast as underdogs, Croatia head into the match at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion with many expecting them to prevail. "We're not complacent and we won't stop," said Bilić. "It's our intention to go as far as possible. Of course we're under pressure and the pressure's rising, but it's a positive pressure. We welcome it. It can only motivate us more and make us play better."
The 39-year-old was a player when the sides first met at EURO '96, in a game that marked both countries' tournament debut. Croatia emerged 1-0 winners thanks to a late Goran Vlaović strike, but it is Turkey who have been registering the last-gasp goals recently. Remarkable comeback victories over Switzerland and the Czech Republic booked their passage to the knockout phase from Group A, and Bilić is wary of their never-say-die spirit. "That shows how strong they are," he said. "We must be fully concentrated until the final whistle. They have good morale and they don't give up. It's praiseworthy but it also shows their weakness. Nobody wants to trail in a match and to have to come back."
The Croatians are yet to go behind in this tournament and are likely to field the same lineup that overcame Germany 2-1, with Ivan Rakitić and Darijo Srna both back in training again after picking up slight knocks. Croatia cannot boast a totally clean bill of health as fringe players Igor Budan and Dario Kneević will miss the rest of the competition with knee injuries, although compared with Turkey they are positively fighting fit. Emre Güngör (calf), Servet Çetin (hip and knee), Emre Belözoğlu and Tümer Metin (both groin) are all unavailable to Fatih Terim for fitness reasons, while goalkeeper Volkan Demirel and defensive midfielder Mehmet Aurélio are suspended. On the plus side, Emre Aşık (head) and Gökhan Zan (knee) appear to have recovered and will pair up in central defence.
"We have no excuses," said Terim, who was also coach when Turkey succumbed to Bilić and co in 1996. "It doesn't matter who plays at the back, in midfield or up front. What's important is how the players perform, not their names. All our injured players are important to us, but their replacements can do a good job." The 54-year-old nonetheless expressed his support for stand-in goalkeeper Rüştü Reçber: "We believe in him. He has lots of big tournament experience." Unsurprisingly enough, however, the priority for Terim will be to avoid the need for yet another stunning comeback. "For once, we hope we can start the game well, but we're ready for 90 minutes, 120 minutes or penalties and we've lost none of our bravery."
Nihat Kahveci`s winner against the Czech Republic sent Turkey through