ZAGREB, June 5 (Reuters) - Croatia may have been just seconds away from the semi-finals at Euro 2008, but their chances of emulating that success this summer in Poland and Ukraine look remote.
The Croatians face tough Euro 2012 group stage opposition in holders and world champions Spain, Italy and a newly resolute Ireland.
However, they can take comfort from the way they impressively topped a tough four years ago when they beat co-hosts Austria in Vienna, Poland and eventual runners-up Germany.
In the quarter-finals they took the lead against Turkey in the final minute of extra time, only to concede an equaliser with the last kick of the game and then lose the penalty shootout.
Their confidence dented, Croatia failed to reach the 2010 World Cup and endured a patchy Euro 2012 qualifying campaign before gaining revenge against the Turks in a play-off.
They finished second behind Greece in their group before producing their best performance of the campaign in a 3-0 win in Turkey in the play-off first leg and confirmed their passage with a goalless draw in Zagreb.
Many of the Euro 2008 squad remain and form the backbone of the current team in which goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, defenders Josip Simunic and Darijo Srna, midfielders Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric and are regulars in Bilic’s preferred 4-4-2 formation.
Especially influential are 30-year old captain Srna and playmaker Modric, who flourished at Tottenham Hotspur for most of this season until he and his team faltered in the closing stages of the campaign.
Like most Balkan teams, Croatia have plenty of natural talent. What separates them from their regional rivals, however, is the ability to play well under pressure.
Since gaining independence in 1992, the Croatians have qualified for seven of nine major tournaments and stunned the world when they reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup in France.
Coach Bilic was one of that team, which included Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker, all of whom enjoyed impressive careers and won the Champions League.
The present generation is led by Srna, Modric and Brazilian-born striker Eduardo da Silva, who has made a successful return to international football after an horrific career-threatening injury while playing for Arsenal in the Premier League.
They possess some of that 1998 talent and guile, but may lack adequate replacements for ageing key players. This could be a weakness for the squad.
Bilic’s team may struggle to match the Spaniards and Italy for pace and crisp one-touch passing so they have to go all out for the win against Ireland in their opener in Poznan on June 10.
Weaknesses exposed in the qualifier were made more obvious in February’s 3-1 home defeat by Sweden in a friendly, when AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic exploited a flat defence with deadly ease.
Croatia’s build-up play is usually crafty, but against top-level opposition it can be slow and predictable, another weakness they must overcome.
However, when it comes to spirit and determination they are and always have been a match for anyone in the world so if they do fail to make it they will at least go down fighting.
Editing by Mitch Phillips; to query or comment on this story email email@example.com