MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) analyses Friday’s Euro 2016 Group D encounter between Czech Republic and Croatia from Saint-Etienne.
Czech Republic v Croatia | Friday 17.00 | BBC1
Croatia take on Czech Republic in Saint-Etienne on Friday with the two Group D nations sitting at opposite ends of the table following their first round fixtures.
Luka Modric’s sensational long-range volley gave Croatia a deserved victory over Turkey in Paris to put the Blazers in pole position to qualify. Ante Cacic’s charges are now just 1/12 to seal a knockout stage place and look great value at 10/11 (Boylesports) to make it two wins from two here.
Czech Republic’s admirable resistance was broken just minutes from time against defending champions Spain in their opener. Pavel Vyrba’s men fell to a 1-0 defeat and the ageing Lions squad have a day’s less rest to recover for this encounter after being run ragged by the Spanish.
Croatia coach Cacic said before Euro 2016 started that he hoped his team could be one of the surprises of the tournament and his team started impressively in the French capital.
The Blazers fired in 19 shots in total with Darijo Srna and Ivan Perisic striking the woodwork whilst Turkish keeper Volkan Babacan was called in to make several good saves. But it took time for the Balkan boys to find their rhythm.
Veteran right-back Srna was delivering telling crosses into the Turkey area, as was Perisic from the left, but Croatia were lacking a clinical edge in the final third. Marcelo Brozovic in particular was guilty of failing to make the most of the openings.
However, as the game grew, so did Croatia. Ivan Rakitic finally started to punch holes in the Turkish defence and Modric again proved his ability with a mesmerising all-action show. Although the final score appeared tight, the Blazers were comfortable winners.
It’s now seven wins from an unbeaten eight matches for the Croats, who’ve conceded just twice in that sample. You’d expect the Blazers’ outstanding talent across the midfield to again monopolise possession, starving the Czechs of time on the ball and potential goalscoring opportunities.
Gerard Pique’s header for Spain left the Czechs reeling after a stubborn defensive display had kept their more illustrious opponents at bay for large swathes of the encounter.
Although feeding off scraps, Vyrba’s charges did give the Spaniards a scare when Cesc Fabregas hooked a Theodor Gebre Selassie header off the goalline whilst Vladimir Darida had a chance to equalise only for David de Gea to block his volley from 10 yards.
But it’s now just two wins from seven for the Lions – one of which came against Malta – who came into the tournament having conceded 14 goals in qualifying – the most of any team at Euro 2016.
Despite that wretched defensive record, the Czechs were happy to sit back and try to catch out Spain on the counter-attack or from a set-piece. That will need to change that approach here with a second successive loss putting knockout qualification under serious threat.
Considering the underdogs have now kept just one clean sheet in 23 games, managing to conjure up two goals against a possession-hogging Croatian side looks unlikely.
The Blazers have notched in 21 of their past 26 competitive outings since Euro 2012 and against the aforementioned ropey Czech defence, that record should be extended in Saint-Etienne.
Although Croatia don’t have a propensity for scoring gluts of goals, defensively they’ve shut out their opposition in half of those 26 encounters and I’d expect this encounter to play out similar to those of the opening Group D clashes.
The 10/11 on a Croatia win looks a corker but punters looking for a bit more bang for their buck should consider the 29/20 (Boylesports) on the Blazers winning and Under 3.5 Goals. Both bets offer blinding value.
Czech Republic v Croatia – Croatia to win and Under 3.5 goals (29/20 Boylesports)