IRELAND AND CROATIA will be looking to make a victorious start to their Euro 2012 campaign when they meet on Sunday, knowing that on the road ahead lie heavyweights Italy and holders Spain.
“The first 90 minutes will have an impact on the tournament. It’s very important to win the first match, which would give us a certain advantage, but it would also be important not to lose,” Ireland’s coach Giovanni Trapattoni told uefa.com.
The Irish old guard, symbolised by 31-year-old record scorer and captain Robbie Keane and 36-year-old goalkeeper Shay Given, know this could be their last international tournament.
“In any competition you want to start off as well as you can, and get points on the board,” said Keane.
As both teams look to make their mark, the match also has the potential to be a clash of the coaching generations.
It pits 73-year-old Italian Trapattoni, perhaps the most successful club coach of all time, against Croatia’s 43-year-old Slaven Bilic, who after six years in charge would like nothing better than to lift the trophy before he moves into club management with Russia’s Lokomotiv Moscow.
However, the engaging Trapattoni makes light of the age difference.
“This is not a problem. I feel like a 20-year-old, only with more experience,” said Trapattoni having conducted Friday’s press conference in English, Italian and even German gained while coaching Bayern Munich in the 1990s.
“I’m still hungry for success, I watch every football match and always think of ways in which I could improve.”
Irish fans’ expectations are high as the boys in green return to the stage for their first major finals since the 2002 World Cup – where Given and Keane shone – having fallen controversially to France in the playoffs for the 2010 edition.
Fittingly, it was via the playoffs that Ireland earned their berth at Euro 2012, as they beat minnows Estonia to reach their first European championship since 1988.
“We are strong in our attitude, our mentality, our confidence. Without a doubt we believe in ourselves. For us, this discipline, this attitude, is very important,” said Trappatoni.
Both sides will be keenly aware that much attention will be focused on Group C favourites Spain and Italy who meet the same night in the Baltic port of Gdansk.
“Spain are red-hot favourites to win the group and ourselves, Italy and Croatia are probably vying for second spot, if we’re all being honest,” said midfielder Keith Andrews.
Croatia earned their slot by knocking out Turkey in the playoffs, exacting revenge for the Turks’ penalties victory in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals.
Their progress four years ago raised hopes of a return to Croatian football’s 1990s glory days, when Bilic was a pillar of their defence.
Croatia, emerging from the war sparked by the collapse of Yugoslavia, reached the quarter-finals of Euro 1996 and finished third at the 1998 World Cup.
Doing well at Euro 2012 would have added symbolism for a nation set to join the European Union next year.
Star midfielder Luka Modric reckons that the result against Ireland will set the tone for Croatia’s campaign.
“It’s our most important match in the group,” said Modric.
“If we win it, then I believe we will reach the knockout phase.”
Modric has just recovered from a bout of flu, but Croatia have been plagued by injury, losing midfielder Ivo Ilicevic, defender Dejan Lovren and veteran striker Ivica Olic, and have concerns over defender Vedran Corluka.
“I don’t have a headache. I just have plan A, B and C. And I will pick one of those plans. Whichever plan I pick, it will be good,” the straight-talking Bilic said.