Euro 2012 playoffs renew recent rivalries

October 13, 2011

 By Zoran Milosavljevic

The Euro 2012 two-legged playoffs should offer plenty of action and eight entertaining matches, with the last four berths in next year’s finals up for grabs.

While Ireland will start as strong favourites against Estonia, the other three ties appear set to be nerve-jangling affairs in which two former Yugoslav repubics will be eager to avenge painful defeats against their respective opponents, while another is aiming to make history in only their second tournament as an independent nation.

Revenge will be the only thing on Croatia’s mind when they clash with Turkey, who knocked them out in an epic Euro 2008 quarter-final. Having taken the lead in the final minute of extra time to go 1-0 up, Croatia were almost already celebrating when Turkey equalised with the last kick of the game and then won the penalty shootout to send their fans in Vienna into raptures, leaving Croatian coach Slaven Bilic and his players shattered.

The defeat had far-reaching consequences for Croatia, as they struggled throughout their 2010 World Cup campaign and failed to reach the finals, while Bilic repeatedly came under fire from the media after tepid performances from a team which had clearly not recovered from the shell-shocking loss to the Turks.

They showed precious little improvement in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, as a 2-0 defeat by Greece which consigned them to the playoffs exposed chinks in the armour of a squad expected to qualify for next year’s finals as the group winners.

But Croatian fans, several of whom had told me they were so busy celebrating Ivan Klasnic’s goal in Vienna against Turkey they missed Semih Senturk’s deft equaliser, will forget the ordeals they have endured over the past three years if the team lay their gosts to rest in what promises to be a cracking tie, with the return leg in Croatia’s capital Zagreb.

“Turkey are a strong team but they are not stronger than us and this is the moment we have been waiting for since Vienna,” Bilic told Croatian media after his team were pitted against the Turks.

“We’ve been dreaming of a chance to avenge that defeat and here it is, we keep saying that good teams bring the best in us and this is our chance to prove it,” he said. “Both teams are capable of doing wonders at home so it’s a good thing that we will be at home in the return leg, it could be a telling factor.”

Bosnia, vying for their first major tournament as an independent nation, were 12 minutes away from snatching automating qualification form France in their crunch game in Paris on Tuesday. Instead, having had to settle for a 1-1 draw after Samir Nasri’s penalty, they also face a recent nemesis in Portugal, the team that beat them 2-0 on aggregate in the 2010 World Cup playoffs.

The Bosnians were then overawed by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, but their coach Safet Susic believes it could be a very different story this time, with his team buoyed by the brave performance in Paris.

“We have shown that we can take on anyone and although we are a bit disappointed not to have avoided Portugal, clearly the strongest team in the playoffs, we will head into the tie confident that we can beat them,” he said.

“It’s probably good that we are playing the first leg at home this time, because it would be an advantage to take a good result to Portugal for the return leg rather than chase a 1-0 lead deficit at home like last last time we played them,” Susic told Reuters.

Montenegro, who won only one of their 2010 World Cup qualifiers in their first tournament as an independent nation, could make it three out of three for former Yugoslav nations in the playoffs if they defy the odds once again, having finished second in their group behind England but ahead of the more heralded Switzerland, Wales and Bulgaria.

Their Football Association president Dejan Savicevic, a former Yugoslavia midfielder who won the European Cup with Red Star Belgrade and AC Milan, was delighted with the draw.

“Not only am I happy with the draw, I am overjoyed because it was either the Czech Republic or Portugal after the first two ties were drawn. I wouldn’t have been bothered by drawing Croatia or Ireland either because our main concern was to avoid Portugal,” he said.

“We have strong individuals in our team, including two world class players in (Juventus striker) Mirko Vucinic and (Fiorentina forward) Stevan Jovetic, so we are on a high after reaching the playoffs and confident that we are not underdogs against the Czechs,” said Savicevic.

So, who will progress to next year’s finals in Poland and Ukraine. Can Estonia, who reached the playoffs despite setbacks like a 2-1 defeat by Faroe Islands, extend Ireland’s 24-year wait to make the Euro finals? Will Turkey rub more salt into Croatia’s wounds and can Bosnia treat FIFA’s 2008 World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo to an early summer break in 2012?

Give us your thoughts.

Picture: UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino of Italy addresses next to a board showing upcoming matches after the Euro 2012 qualifying play-off matches draw in Krakow October 13, 2011. REUTERS/Peter Andrews

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