ZAGREB (Reuters) - Having billed Greece as the most awkward opponents they could draw in the World Cup playoffs, Croatia will head into the two-leg tie confident of maintaining their flawless record in the final round of qualifying for major tournaments.
The Croatians have won all four of their playoffs to reach either World Cup or European Championship tournaments in the past and have advanced to 9 out of 11 major finals as an independent nation.
Thursday’s home leg against the Greeks comes after a turbulent year in which Croatia were dislodged from the top of Group I by Iceland halfway through the qualifying campaign and sacked coach Ante Cacic last month ahead of a crucial 2-0 win at Ukraine in their final match.
Cacic’s replacement Zlatko Dalic oversaw the result which enabled Croatia to finish as runners-up and earn a playoff berth, instilling strong belief that they can complete the recovery against an injury-hit Greek side.
“Winning the first leg would make life so much easier in the return fixture,” winger Ivan Perisic told the Croatian Football Association (HNS) website (www.hns-cff.hr).
“The Greeks will certainly be defensive and try as hard as they can to keep a clean sheet, but we have enough up our sleeve up front in an effort to swing the tie our way here in Zagreb.
“It’s down to us, just as it was against Ukraine. The new coach injected fresh ideas and we did the best job we could in that vital game.”
Defensive midfielder Milan Badelj has been ruled out of the tie with a ribcage muscle injury while striker Mario Mandzukic is doubtful with a hamstring strain.
Although Mandzukic is a vital player for Croatia, Dalic has options with the in-form Andrej Kramaric who scored both goals against the Ukrainians and AC Milan’s Nikola Kalinic.
Greece, who finished behind Belgium in Group H, are hoping that captain Vasilis Torosidis and central defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos win a race against time to be fit for the clash.
Should either of them miss the first leg, German coach Michael Skibbe is likely to deploy either Kyriakos Papadopoulos or Panagiotis Retsos, with Kostas Manolas suspended for the first leg over a fair play violation.
FIFA ruled that Manolas deliberately got himself booked in a 2-1 win over Cyprus in order to miss out the final group match against Gibraltar, so that he would begin the playoffs with a clean disciplinary record.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Additional reporting by Graham Wood in Athens; Editing by Christian Radnedge