Euro 2012: Expert v Expert Preview - Croatia v Republic of Ireland

Croatian perspective: Charles Ducksbury

The over-riding feeling in the Croatia camp is that it is all or nothing heading into the game with Ireland. As Luka Modric stated: “This game is the most important. If we win then I believe will qualify from the group, if we lose then it’s a difficult proposition.” Coach Slaven Bilic, who leaves to take over Lokomotiv Moscow after the tournament, agreed with his playmaker: “For now, I can only think of Ireland. They’re a strong team and we must focus 100% on beating them.”
It’s hard not to agree with the duo: defeat would leave Croatia almost certainly needing at least four points against Italy and Spain, whilst victory would give them with a great chance of qualifying.

Preparations have been hindered by two players being ruled out of the tournament. Midfielder Ivo Ilicevic is out with a calf injury, but most importantly Ivica Olic has withdrawn from the squad, leaving Bilic with a selection problem up front.

It seems the Croats will play a front two against Ireland. Nikica Jelavic looks almost certain to start, but the headache is whether Mario Mandzukic or former Arsenal man Eduardo partners him. In more positive news, Spurs defender Vedran Corluka has recovered from his injury and will play the opening game.

Ireland’s big hope is the lack of pace in the Croatian defence. In Josip Simunic and Gordon Schildenfeld, Croatia have a slow centre-back pairing who will not enjoy running towards their own goal, meaning the defence will sit relatively deep. Tomislav Dujmovic will be the link between defence and midfield, but again is not the quickest.

Score prediction: Croatia 1-1 Republic of Ireland

Draw at 3.15; Nikica Jelavic to score a header at 10.00; Simunic to get a card at 3.50.

Irish perspective: Bryan Nicholson

The Irish go into this one with confidence high, having claimed a win and a draw – and two clean sheets – in their warm-up games. Giovanni Trapattoni has already started the psychological battle, revealing his hand early by claiming that the eleven who started in the friendly against Hungary midweek would be his side against Croatia. This means the one real spot that was up for grabs has been filled: Trap will stay loyal to a man who had a very difficult season, Kevin Doyle. Doyle will partner Robbie Keane up top in a tried and tested partnership and will be keen to add to his ten International goals.

Looking at the various betting markets in this one, 1.74 on the double chance (draw or Ireland win) looks a top bet. The strength of the Irish team in defence – with a strict 4-4-2 and solid central midfield duo of Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan protecting – could give them the upper hand, especially given the absence of the energetic Ivica Olic for Croatia. Opening games are often tight and tactical affairs and Croatia's obvious attacking talents may be snuffed out by a strong Ireland rear guard that will include Richard Dunne, Sean St. Ledger and John O' Shea. The value for me lies with keeping the stubborn Irish onside. 

Ireland are unbeaten in 14 games and have conceded a miserly three goals in the process, so it's hard to see too many goals in this one, particularly as both teams will be keen to avoid an opening defeat.

Score prediction: Croatia 1-1 Republic of Ireland

Under 2.5 goals at 1.53; Croatia 1-1 Republic of Ireland at 6.50; Doyle to score at 5.00.