Croatia manager Slaven Bilic knows his side are in for a tough test when they take on Italy in Poznan at Euro 2012 on Thursday.
Bilic’s side will enter the Group C encounter full of confidence after a comfortable 3-1 win over the Republic of Ireland in their tournament opener.
Mario Mandzukic netted a double in the victory while wide men Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic impressed in a triumph that sent the Croatians to the top of a difficult group that contains Italy and Spain.
But Bilic is fully aware that his side’s two remaining matches will be a tougher proposition and he expects the Italians to be just as strong as Spain, the current world and European champions.
“Italy are strong, they think about us and about our play,” Bilic said.
“(Cesare) Prandelli (Italy’s manager) respects us. They have a team and players who can dominate on the pitch. For me, they are not weaker than Spain, especially with Prandelli in charge.
“Maybe Ireland were easy to analyse but it will be hard with the Italians. We need to keep at this (high) level if we want to win that match.”
Italy put on a strong display in their 1-1 draw against the Spaniards and if it were not for goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Prandelli’s side could have easily won.
A brave 3-5-2 formation employed by the coach was a risk, with midfielder Daniele De Rossi playing in the centre of that three-man back line.
But De Rossi played well and Spain – who do not play with too much width – were suffocated by a crowded midfield.
Facing Croatia is a different prospect though and the likes of Rakitic and Perisic may force Italy to switch back to a 4-4-2 formation, something they employed to great effect during the qualifiers.
Croatia won the last time the two sides met, but that friendly in August 2006 – just over a month after Italy won the FIFA World Cup – saw the losers put out a second-string side.
Andrea Pirlo was vital for Italy in their first match and his battle with Luka Modric in the centre of midfield is likely to prove crucial, while concerns still linger over Croatia’s defence.
Whether a mixture of Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale can dominate a game at national level remains to be seen but if Italy maintain possession, Croatia will find it tough getting all three points from this fixture.
A draw would still be a good result for the Croatians but with Spain in their final game, they will be desperate to avoid defeat.
If Italy replicate something similar to their performance against the current holders of the European Championship though, it is hard not to see them winning.
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