Croatia opened up their Euro 96 campaign with a hard fought 1-0 victory over a battling Turkey at the home of Nottingham Forest.
The Croats were competing in their first ever major tournament, having formerly been part of a Yugoslavia team. The fledgling nation raised eyebrows in qualification by beating Italy to first place in their group, a campaign that included a 2-1 away win over Italy in Palermo.
Striker Davor Suker scored both goals in the Italian victory, and scored a total of 12 goals in the campaign. Suker was joined up front for this game by Alen Boksic in a 3-5-2 formation that fielded a central midfield trio of Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban and Aljosa Asanovic. Center back Igor Stimac will have been familiar with the City Ground, as he was currently playing for Forest’s local rivals Derby County.
Turkey qualified by finishing second in their group behind Switzerland, and 6 points clear of third placed Sweden. A 2-1 away win over the Swiss in Bern was one of the key results in the qualification campaign.
Hakan Sukur led the Turks with 7 goals in qualifying, and played up front with Sergen Yalcin in a 3-5-2 formation for this game. Tugay Kerimoglu and Tolunay Kafkas played in central midfield, while Rustu Recber was in goal.
The Turks gave as good as they got in a tight opening 15 minutes, with both sides having spells of possession, even if penetration in the final third lacked on both ends. A notable feature of Turkey’s performance in the early stages was the work rate shown in defense by hard working striker Sukur.
While possessing little threat in the final third during the opening half, Turkey did possess well and their buildup play featured defenders Alpay Ozalan and Vedat Inceefe showing comfort on the ball and ability to step higher into midfield and make plays.
The first clear cut chance came from a Croatia free kick when Boksic was fouled wide of the penalty area. Boban hung the kick up to the back post area, but the header from Mario Stanic was right at Rustu.
Another Croatian chance came in the 22nd minute when Suker found space to cross and strike partner Boksic headed over under pressure from defender Vedat. The resulting collision between Boksic and Vedat left both bleeding and in need of treatment before continuing the game.
Croatia starting to gain an upper hand as the half progressed, and in a similar vein to Turkey, most of their quality build up featured either center backs or wing backs stepping up higher in possession to find passes and make plays.
Neither team managed to find a goal during the first period. Turkey edged possession with 52% of the ball, while Croatia put 4 shots on goal, with Turkey not finding the target once. As the teams went down the tunnel for the intermission, a visibly frustrated Slaven Bilic may have summed up Croatia’s feelings in terms of being stifled by the Turks.
Despite the quality on display in terms of possession, both teams continued to possess well without really carving open their opponent in the second half. The defenders contributed well in terms of possession buildup, but the midfield of neither team really showed much penetration in terms of runs to support or go beyond the forwards. Turkey continued to edge the possession battle with 54% of the ball as of the 67th minute of play.
Croatia carved out a golden chance to break the deadlock in the 69th minute when Prosinecki released wingback Robert Jarni down the left after a good piece of skill, Jarni’s cross found Suker at the back post but the striker’s header back across goal was agonisingly wide.
It was the other Croatian wingback featuring as Croatia created another chance two minutes later. Mario Stanic linked with Boksic who drew a foul outside the area in a wide position. The free kick was swung over to the back post, but was headed clear over his own bar by Alpay.
In the 73rd minute, Croatian coach Miroslaz Blazevic would make a crucial substitution, replacing striker Boksic with Goran Vlaovic. Striker Vlaovic was provided with a chance just three minutes after coming on, when a misplaced backpass by Tolunay saw him clean through on goal, only for Rustu to come up with an important save.
Croatia continued to push for a winner and a 78th minute Prosinecki free kick saw Suker head wide of the target again, but the Croats would find the crucial breakthrough in the latter stages.
Turkey won an 86th minute corner as they pushed for a winner themselves, but a lethal counter attack would see them picking the ball out of their own net less than 20 seconds after taking the set play. The ball was cleared and Asanovic gained possession on the edge of his own area before passing forward to Vlaovic. Striker Vlaovic was first to the ball and beat one tackle on the halfway line and seeing himself released on goal, showing great poise to carry the ball and place an excellent low finish past Rustu.
The historic goal was Croatia’s first in a major tournament, and sparked wild celebrations among their travelling support.
An injury time corner for Turkey ended in Croatian goalkeeper Drazen Ladic collecting comfortably and the clock ticked down to seal the three points.
Croatia were favorites after an impressive qualifying campaign, but this game showed the increased difficulty and pressure tournament play can bring. Their backline defended well, and the midfield trio showed great ability to possess.
The late goal from Vlaovic would see him push for inclusion, and also light a spark under Suker and Boksic, as Croatia would need more incisiveness in attack as they prepared to face Denmark and their star goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in the next game.
Turkey will have been disappointed to leave with nothing after holding strong on the defensive end for so long. With a tough game against Portugal up next, that defensive strength would be tested again.
Coach Fatih Terim would also be likely looking for more support to striker Sukur as failing to win against Portugal would leave them in a tough spot in terms of qualification from group play.
86’ Goran Vlaovic (Aljosa Asanovic) 1-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
CM Robert Prosinecki (Croatia) – The midfielder was dominant in the middle third throughout the game, showing great skill while also consistently finding the forwards and wide players to start attacks.
3: CM Robert Prosinecki – Man of the Match
2: CF Davor Suker – A thorn in the side of Turkey all game, showing good movement and created, even if ultimately missing two excellent chances when attacking crosses in the area.
1: CD Slaven Bilic – Tough and combative defender who fought hard in defense, while also showing the quality to contribute in possession, both finding passes and adopting higher positions in support of the midfield.
3: LM Abdullah Ercan – The left wing back defended his flank well, also consistently joining the attack with energy and quality.
2: GK Rustu Recber – The goalkeeper held strong for almost the entire game, displaying a number of quality saves and collecting most crosses well.
1: CF Hakan Sukur – A tough game in terms of breaking down the Croat backline, but Sukur persisted for 90 minutes, and also showed high work ethic on the defensive end.