Follow Your Leader



International football proved itself yet again to know no boundaries when it comes to cruelty, as Croatia were sent packing from Euro 2008 by Turkey in the most astonishing circumstances. If football was run on a basis of commonsense like most other sports, and timed matches offically rather than leaving it up to one individual’s watch, Turkey would now be on their way home. Instead they scored the latest goal ever in the history of the European Championships, 121 minutes and 4 seconds into the match, which was 4 seconds after their time should have been up.

Croatia themselves had broken the deadlock less than two minutes earlier, but couldn’t wait to indulge in wildly joyous celebrations, and failed spectacularly to observe Brian Clough’s old maxim that ‘It only takes a second to score a goal’. The brunt of the blame for this must be taken by the man who led them so magnificently to this stage, their coach Slaven Bilic. In a previous post I had commented that Bilic had given the impression of being the strongest leader amongst all the competitors coaches, but I was proved wrong as Bilic allowed himself to be swept away by euphoria when his side scored in the 119th minute, joining a pile of rejoycing bodies instead of calming and organising his players to see the job through. At that moment Croatia required leadership, but for once it was not forthcoming.

Croatia’s failure to spend 90 seconds nailing a victory which they had deserved exposed a lack of experience at this level both on the pitch and the bench. They also missed clearcut chances to win the game in normal time, and failed to heed the warning of Turkey’s previous match-winning late finishes, so any claims of bad luck on the Croatians’ part would be misjudged.

Bilic and his side were punished in the harshest way possible, as their nerve disintegrated in the penalty shoot-out where they were barely able to hit the target. The scenes afterwards told you everything about the expectation that they had carried into the game; crestfallen Croats littered the field, many in tears, others rendered numb by the sudden and untimely death their campaign had suffered. For Croatia this wasn’t meant to happen, mentally it seemed as though they were already in the semi-final against Germany and that was almost certainly their fatal mistake. Defeat at this stage, after winning three group games easily and convincing themselves and everyone else that they were genuine contenders for the title, was something they were utterly unprepared for and it showed on the faces of their shattered players and supporters.

The Turks showed once and for all, if there could have been any remaining doubt, that they don’t know the meaning of giving in; and yet unlike in their previous unlikely recoveries against Switzerland and the Czechs, this time they were genuinely beaten. None of the Turkish players could honestly say that on going behind they immediately steeled themselves for a 90-second attempt at retrieving the situation. What they did was win a free-kick in their own half, launch it hopefully into the area, and get lucky on two counts as the loose ball dropped at the feet of Semih Sentürk, and his shot took a deflection and flew into the top corner.

The drama in this encounter was almost entirely reserved for the final two minutes of extra-time and the resulting penalties. The 118 minutes that had gone before Croatia opened the scoring had been largely forgettable, Turkey basically setting out to run their legs off in an attempt to keep Croatia’s time and space to a minimum, which was negative but sensible, given that Croatia would have destroyed them had they been allowed this, and the Turks knew it. The Turks had to work so hard to prevent Croatia from playing that they had very little resources left for attacking themselves.

Turkey shouldn’t have got away with it, as even though chances were few and far between for Croatia, when they did arrive they were gift-wrapped, and Ivica Olic will be seeing the open goal he missed from 4 yards in his sleep for a very long time. Luka Modric, the best player on the pitch by a mile, escaped wonderfully from the attentions of two defenders to slip a ball straight to Olic that took the goalkeeper out of the equation, and the striker somehow contrived to hit the bar when needing only to tap it over the line. Chances such as this one should have been snapped up by anybody, and those citing the loss of Arsenal’s Eduardo from Croatia’s line-up as a reason for their failure to break Turkey down are off the mark; Croatia hadn’t missed him up to this point, and they did enough in this game to win without him again.

The second half was even worse than the first, and Croatia simply ran out of ideas. In extra-time they ran out of energy too, and sensing they had broken their opponents, Turkey became more ambitious, and began to look the more likely winners for the first time in the match. That was until their most vulnerable factor, veteran goalkeeper Rüstü Reçber, rendered all their hard work meaningless, or so it seemed, by wandering off after a ball drifting tamely away from his goal, only to beaten to it comfortably by Modric who centred the ball for sub Ivan Klasnic to head home.

Rüstü, quite frankly, had a dreadful night. Yet somehow, in Jan Tomasziewsi fashion, he managed to keep almost everything at bay despite quite obviously being ‘a clown’. That was until his faux-pas appeared to have cost Turkey the game, but the keeper was given a quite undeserved opportunity for redemption; firstly sending the free-kick into the box from which the Turks’ equalised, then saving the final penalty which sealed their semi-final place. That such an awful performer on the night should end as the hero must have been tough to swallow for anyone inclined towards Croatia, but for us neutrals the good news is that Rüstü may well be back again in the semis to provide yet more comedy, that is unless first choice keeper Volkan Demirel wins an appeal to have his suspension reduced from two matches to one. The biggest question posed by Rüstü’s display, is just how bad must third choice keeper Tolga Zengin be?

Only a complete fool would write the Turks’ chances off altogether, but with more suspensions collected in this game, plus another key injury to add to their list, to striker Nihat Kahveci, you have to fear for the first semi-final as a contest. If the Germans can wipe the floor with Portugal, they ought to do the same with a decimated Turkish side you would think, but then again the Turks will be more organised at the back than the Portuguese, and they will do everything they can to frustrate the Germans. If the Turks get through the first hour at 0-0 again, anything becomes possible, though if they find themselves within one goal as the game enters its final seconds, something tells me the Germans might just be a little more prepared to deal with a final desperate throw of the dice.

Croatia are a massive loss to Euro 2008, and have played a huge part in making it the great tournament it has been. I don’t think anyone watching them over the last year or so, and that will include plenty of English fans, could argue that England are close to Croatia as a team right now, or that anyone else should start as favourites for World Cup qualifying group 6. It was sad to hear Slaven Bilic say that he had thought about quitting, so devastated was he by this loss. Although his and the players’ inexperience proved costly for Croatia in this match, they will surely never find another coach who commands such respect from the team. They must stay together, and learn together.

Interestingly, Turkey’s win made it two out of two for the group runners-up, despite the ‘advantage’ gained by the group winners by resting all their players for the third match. Surely the idea couldn’t be proved to be entirely false logic? Could it?


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Filed under Football, Sport, UEFA Euro 2008

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