Bilic: Starlet Modric can spur on Croatia

CROATIA boss Slaven Bilic has backed Luka Modric to take centre stage at Euro 2008 in the absence of Eduardo — and the Tottenham midfielder is confident he can live up to expectations.

Croatia face Austria today (kick-off 5pm) and Bilic’s name already crops up when a Barclays Premier League job becomes available, while Modric has earned a £16.5million (€20.6m) move to White Hart Lane from Dinamo Zagreb.

Spurs fans will get a glimpse of Modric when they face joint hosts Austria in Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium.

“I’m confident I’ll live up to their expectations,” said Modric. “I think I’ll do well, but the most important thing is the team.”

Modric explained the importance of Bilic to his development.

“We’ve been working together for three-and-a-half years and Mr Bilic trusted me from the start,” he added.

“He trusted me to show what I can do on the pitch. It’s a pleasure to be able to work with someone like him.”

Bilic admits losing Eduardo, their top scorer in qualifying, will be a factor after the Arsenal forward’s sickening ankle injury in February.

“Losing Eduardo was a big blow for us,” said Bilic. “I have other excellent strikers, but without Eduardo we’re not the same team.”

Despite the setback, Bilic is confident heading into the tournament.

He added: “I believe that we are strong enough to take the title.

“We have a quality team. We qualified from one of the toughest groups, beating England twice. We also had to play Russia and Macedonia and we were the first side to win in Israel for four or five years.

“There is a very realistic possibility a surprise package will win like Greece did in 2004 and I think we are quite capable of doing it.”

There is less expectation on Austria heading into their opening game of the tournament, with coach Josef Hickersberger upset earlier in the week as players turned up late to join the squad.

Team manager Andreas Herzog said: “There were two or three minor things which did not fit into the coach’s system.

“He talked to the team about them and the issue is over.

“The first game of the tournament is the most important. We can only get by Croatia by giving 100%. But our players are very well prepared and have justifiable hopes that we can beat Croatia.”

Among the decisions Hickersberger faces is choosing his first-choice goalkeeper, with former Arsenal stopper Alex Manninger and former Chelsea man Jurgen Macho in the running.

Middlesbrough defender Emanuel Pogatetz has been struggling with a calf problem but is expected to play in a match they start as underdogs.

Midfielder Umit Korkmaz feels it can work in favour of the joint-hosts that they are unfancied. “Everybody is underestimating us and we will strike like a bomb,” he said.

Team-mate Christoph Leitgeb added: “The chances of us reaching the quarter-finals are high. Croatia have weaknesses in defence, which we have to take advantage of.”

Likely line-ups: AUSTRIA: Manninger, Pogatetz, Stranzl, Gercalau, Prodl, Ivanschitz, Samuel, Aufhauser, Lietgeb, Linz, Harnik.

CROATIA: Pletikosa, Corluka, Simic, Kovac, Simunic, Srna, Modric, Kovac, Kranjcar, Olic, Klasnic.


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