With Spain and Italy in the same group, Croatia are going to have some work to do at the European Championship.
The Croatians reached the quarter-finals four years ago, and a large chunk of the team that lost to Turkey are back for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine. "We showed in 2008 that we know how to play and we will be ready again," Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said. "We went to Austria [in 2008] to win the Euros and we are going with the same ambitions now."
Euro 2012 will mark the fourth time Croatia has played in the tournament since gaining independence from Yugoslavia 21 years ago. The team qualified by beating Turkey in the playoffs, but in return they were handed a tough draw. Croatia will open Group C against Ireland on June 10 in Poznan before facing Italy and defending champion Spain.
"Croatia have always been capable of winning big games against the favourites," midfielder Darijo Srna told UEFA. "We can choose between an easy way of qualifying, or a harder way of doing it – the easy way being to win the first game against Ireland, take three points, and then try to get those additional points in the other two matches."
Croatia has a number of creative talents – including Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric and Bayern Munich striker Ivica Olic – that will look to unlock the Irish defence, which has only conceded three goals over the past year. "They are tough, strong, well-organised and defend very well," Bilic said. "The only surprise would be if Trapattoni made them more attacking ... but that would only make us happier."
Much will rest on the silky skills of Modric, who has been an integral part of a Tottenham team that briefly challenged for the Premier League title. Olic, who is headed for Wolfsburg and at 32 may be playing in his final major international football tournament, could also be key, especially if he manages to win the Champions League with Bayern later this month.
Bilic will also have one of the most inform European strikers at his disposal. Though he has yet to establish himself in the first team, Nikica Jelavic will be hoping to carry his form from English club Everton into the tournament. He has scored 10 goals in 15 appearances since his arrival at the end of January.
"Modern football is so competitive, physical and tight so you need a player up front who can hold the ball but is always very dangerous in the box," Bilic said. "Nikica is good in the build up, good in every part of the game really, and is also very hard for an opponent to mark."