Slaven Bilic has raised the stakes ahead of Croatia's World Cup qualifier with England by claiming his squad are a match or better than Fabio Capello's collection of big names in every area of the pitch.
Bilic is aiming to complete a hat-trick of wins over the English after engineering home and away victories in the qualifiers for Euro 2008, defeats which cost England a place at the finals and Steve McClaren his job.
On the eve of the two countries' third meeting in 23 months, former Everton and West Ham defender Bilic – whose stock rose even more at Euro 2008 when his side came within a penalty shootout of reaching the semi-finals as they lost to Turkey – admitted he was feeling the pressure of raised expectations.
But he also insisted his side had earned the right to be regarded as favourites for a match that could prove hugely influential in how the battle for qualification from group six develops.
“England is a squad in which there are individuals who can resolve any match with one move,” Bilic said. “These are the players who have been dominating the Champions League for a decade.”
But the Croatian coach, who has recently been linked with managerial vacancies at English Premiership clubs Newcastle and West Ham, was quick to temper his professed admiration for his opponents with a reminder of the qualities of his own side.
“If we praise them, it does not mean that we are afraid,” he said. “We're not inferior in any area and we'll go for a victory.”
“In such matches there are no favorites but if one has to be chosen than it is really us, by our form, game and results.
“Croatia played better (in their opening qualifier) against Kazakhstan than England against Andorra. Croatia was more convincing against Slovenia than England against the Czech Republic (a 2-2 draw in a friendly).
“On both sides the players are more or less the same and we have won in both matches in previous qualifiers.
“They are stronger than two years ago when we beat them in Zagreb but we are also stronger and better. Not only compared with the game in Zagreb but also with the one at Wembley when we were also celebrating.
“There will be periods when we dominate but also times when they are on top, I'm expected an open battle, a balanced clash of two top teams.”
England's 2-0 defeat here in October 2006 was the result of a combination of a horrendous mistake by goalkeeper Paul Robinson and a tactical blunder by McClaren, who sent his side out in an experimental 3-5-2 formation with disastrous results.
Bilic acknowledged that a coach of Capello's vast experience was unlikely to make a similar misjudgement.
“Capello is Capello,” he said. “He is the top, but it does not mean that we do not sleep due to him. Capello is not the one who is playing.”
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