Croatia’s bit-part star

It’s half-time at the Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb and Croatia are halfway to disaster.

Just before the interval, Tomer Hemed gave Israel the lead. And, with only two fixtures left of their Euro 2012 qualifying group after this, it might well be table-tilting. Before the game, Croatia were only three points ahead of Israel. After it, if the score remains the same, Greece are likely to streak ahead in first place.

So, during the break, Slaven Bilic is forced to drastically alter things. His first look is to Eduardo, who comes on for Vedran Corluka. It proves inspired. Within just two minutes, Eduardo’s runs create the eventual opening for Luka Modric to exchange passes with Niko Kranjcar and fire home.

Four minutes later, that same style of movement proves too much for former Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim. His poor challenge on Eduardo leads to a red card.

In the extra space, Eduardo revels. On 55 minutes, he finishes Modric’s through ball. On 57, he heads home Darijo Srna’s cross.

It’s an immediate and emphatic turnaround — game-changing. It’s also a perfect illustration of what Eduardo’s career has become.

The striker doesn’t often start for club or country any more but has used his time on the pitch with admirable efficiency for both. In 2010-11, his first season with Shakhtar, he developed a reputation as a super sub by scoring six key goals from the bench. Such strikes helped the side win a double last season, with Eduardo also scoring the opener in the 2-0 Ukrainian cup final win over Dynamo Kyiv.

He did actually start on Saturday against Illitchivets Mariupol but, perhaps tellingly, didn’t contribute a goal. That wasn’t to say he was ineffective though. His header did force the error that led to Tomas Hubschmann opening the scoring in a 2-1 win.

Given an impressive goals-to-minute ratio in general, however, you might expect Eduardo to get a little frustrated that he isn’t forcing his way into his teams’ starting XIs more often. At Shakhtar though, there’s the formidable barrier of Luiz Adriano as the lone central striker in a 4-3-3. For Croatia, there’s the industriousness of Ivica Olic.

In the grander scheme of things, there’s Eduardo’s continued adjustment to the horror injury at Birmingham City four years ago while playing with Arsenal.

In truth, it’s simply impossible to evaluate him and his career in any way without viewing it through that particularly painful prism. It irrevocably altered his make-up and mindset.

Most pointedly, it shaved a yard of devastating pace off his game. That naturally and necessarily altered how both Arsenal and Croatia approached their attack.

But his reduced playing time also points to lingering concerns about his overall fitness and physique.

While the stamina and speed aren’t quite what they were though, the quickness of thought, elusiveness of turn and precision of finishing have remained.

And those are elements that Giovanni Trapattoni is going to have to be particularly conscious of in Poznan. If Croatia’s recent displays and Ireland’s form against teams of such status are anything to go by, then the sides’ opening game of Euro 2012 is likely to be a tight, taut affair with Bilic’s outfit pulling the Irish all over the place with their passing but not necessarily pushing the boundaries.

In such a scenario, Eduardo’s introduction could suddenly alter the dynamics and pace of the game. For a start, he has the kind of swiftness of foot that could outfox Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger — especially if they are starting to tire. Most of all though, his movement appears a perfect complement for the vision of Modric. Indeed it was the absence of such an outlet that so affected Croatia in Euro 2008.

That injury meant Bilic’s team didn’t have the tournament — and the legacy — that they might have. And, at 29, Eduardo certainly hasn’t had the career he deserved.

But it’s to his credit — and Ireland’s potential consternation — that he remains a threat. No matter what point he enters the fray.

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