Aleksandar Holiga is a Zagreb-based football writer, editor-in-chief of FourFourTwo Croatia and contributor to the Guardian. Earlier this week, TheScore picked his brain ahead of tonight’s meeting between Ireland and Croatia.
What is the general feeling in Croatia about this match?
Everybody thinks the Ireland game is our big chance. If we’re going to do something in this group then we have to get a result against Ireland because, realistically speaking, it (Ireland) is not better than Croatia.
If we can win that game it would be a confidence boost so everybody’s looking at it as a key game. However, even if we get the three points, it doesn’t mean we will definitely qualify from the group.
The general atmosphere has been very negative for a long time now. People lost some faith in Bilic and the team. Everybody expected euphoria to kick in but it is not happening. They is demanding that we win that game even though, obviously, it will be very hard.
Slaven Bilic has spoke about being well aware of Ireland’s “predictable” style of play. How will he line up his team to try and break us down?
We will definitely play a 4-4-2. After experimenting with several formations in the past, Bilic has decided to settle with that but it’s a bit different from the classic 4-4-2. The key will be Modric’s role. Bilic has had him on a special training programme and I believe we will see a different Modric than the one we are used to in the national team. I think he will be encouraged to go further forward.
Nikica Jelavic will play, which could be good. Ireland play with such a congested back line and your midfield is also very near to the defence and it’s very hard to penetrate. Jelavic may not score but is a player who can drag a couple of players on him and open up space for others.
It is likely to be Mandzukic alongside him and Eduardo from off the bench.
Modric is one of your most important players but there has been talk that he is not 100% fit. Do you believe he is ready to play a major role?
Bilic says that he is fit. That special programme was to regain his freshness. I guess we’ll just have to see but I think he’ll be ready.
Ivica Olic misses out through injury. Will he be badly missed?
I doubt Olic was going to start anyway. Jelavic will be given a chance and especially against Ireland because he is such a robust player, and can play with his back to goal. He will be expecting to get a lot of crosses from the right. That will be one of the key dangers for Ireland. Mandzukic is physical, can step into the midfield and runs the channels.
News that Vedran Corluka will play must be a huge boost. Where will he play?
He is the team’s best defender. He had been playing on the right but was put on the left for the Turkey game and was fantastic. Now Bilic has looked at playing him in centre back because there isn’t a lot of pace there.
Corluka: Croatia’s “best defender”. Credit: Darko Bandic/AP/Press Association Images
Has there been much made of the fact that a manager as successful as Giovanni Trapattoni is in charge of Ireland?
Yes, everybody is talking about that (Trap) and most people in Croatia view Trapattoni as Ireland’s greatest strength. He seems to bring new strength to the team. Under him, they are much more disciplined.
Which Irish players, if any, are the Croatians fearing most?
Most of the talk has been about Robbie Keane and the other strikers like Shane Long but if you ask me, the wingers could be important. Whelan and Andrews will be behind the ball so Duff and McGeady will play big roles in attack.
How do you think the game will go?
It will be really hard to score. Ireland don’t concede much, it will be tight. Maybe 2-1 or 2-0 to Croatia. Bilic knows his team will be allowed to have the ball and attack but that there won’t be many chances.
There is a big chance for Croatia and Ireland to do something in this group and hopefully they do but it will be much harder if they don’t get three points from this game.
Follow Aleksandar on Twitter @AlexHoliga